The Big Twist of 1903

November, 2018 was a wild month for weather, which culminated on the 18th with a particularly bad storm across the district. For those of us in town, all we experienced were some heavy winds and a quick hailstorm, which were unassuming enough.

We are no strangers to a bit of bad weather here in Ashburton, especially spontaneous bad weather, and so that event seemed like a pretty normal storm at first. It wasn’t until the news came in that we heard what really happened: a tornado had passed through the paddocks just north of town!

Tornadoes are uncommon enough around New Zealand that we tend to forget that they can happen, yet common enough to be memorable to those who have experienced or seen them. Like earthquakes, tornadoes are natural events we end up associating with places, as with the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes.

As with every natural disaster or major weather event, videos spread quickly across networks and social media. We recently experienced what people may now refer to as the Ashburton or Mid-Canterbury tornado of 2018, but few seem to know about arguably the worst tornado in Ashburton’s history, which hit the town in 1903.

1 The Ashburton branch of the Farmers' Co-operative, which opened in 1897 and was damaged by the tornado.jpg

An ill wind

The afternoon of January 27, 1903, seemed like it was to be a quiet one – just another sleepy Ashburton Tuesday. These expectations were soon turned on their head, with the coming of one of the most destructive weather events in our town’s history.

According to the Ashburton Guardian, the afternoon began with the onset of a great rumbling noise which seemed to approach town from the south-west. Rubbish and debris began to fly through the air soon after, which quickly ramped up to a deafening volume overhead. Coming from the direction of Longbeach, the winds picked up until the source of said winds was revealed – a tornado, which then tracked a path right through town, allegedly carrying “everything before it.”

The produce shed of the Farmer’s Cooperative store was badly hit, as it was “right in the track of the tornado, and suffered considerably.” The western side of the building was taken by the tornado entirely, its timbers scattered in all directions, before the bulk of the wall was eventually deposited in an adjoining lot. The building was left leaning on a thirty degree angle.

As the tornado ripped through the centre of town, it crossed over a Mr. Thomas’ wool store, and the edge of the Borough School grounds. Miraculously, there were no reports of any serious injuries or deaths during the tornado.

2. Devastation in Ashburton after the 1903 tornado.png

Tornado Trouble

The Ashburton Guardian went on to describe certain events that occurred during the duration of the tornado, dubbed “exciting incidents”. These mainly comprise of near-misses. They drive home the point that one of the biggest dangers of tornadoes, aside from the whirlwind itself, is the debris that is picked up and tossed by the intense winds.

In 1903, as rubbish and debris continually scattered across Ashburton, a piece of iron struck one very unfortunate horse on the street, which was harnessed to a cart at the time. The horse was badly injured with a wound to its shoulder, and was sent to a Mr J. M. Cambridge for minor surgery. The horse was patched up expertly by Cambridge, while the mare was “standing perfectly quiet the whole time” according to the newspaper.

One Robert Clark of Tancred Street had a narrow escape involving a piece of flying timber. A piece of wood came right through his roof and “stuck into the floor of his workshop, close to where he was working, but luckily Mr Clark escaped any personal injury, although he was naturally much alarmed at the time.”  Another case like this occurred involving a Mr Stonyer’s shed, which was speared by a large piece of timber from the Messrs Collins and Co. timber yards. All four of Stonyer’s front windows were also broken, and the telephone wire outside his home was snapped – he just couldn’t get a break!

3. A photo taken by Katie Marriott, from guardian 20 11 18 online.jpg

Rare, yet real

The Ashburton tornado of 1903 can be considered a one-off event, since no twister has caused such damage since that day 116 years ago. While uncommon however, tornadoes still occur around the country frequently enough that we can consider them a threat.

We should be thankful that tornadoes appear much less frequently here in New Zealand than they do in some areas of the United States, where people often lose their lives without adequate shelter in such disasters. Just a few months after the Ashburton tornado, one such incident occurred in Nebraska. Twenty one people were killed, two towns were destroyed, and £500,000 worth of damage was inflicted by their tornado, reminding us that Ashburtonians had been very lucky.

4. The W.H. Collins and Co. timber yards, from which wood was lifted and scattered across town. Photo date unknown.jpg


By Connor Lysaght



  1. The Ashburton branch of the Farmers’ Co-operative, which opened in 1897 and was damaged by the 1903 tornado.
  2. Devastation in Ashburton after the 1903 tornado.
  3. A photo taken by Katie Marriott, from the Ashburton Guardian, November 2018.
  4. The W.H. Collins and Co. timber yards, from which wood was lifted and scattered across town, date unknown.


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