Community Contributed

The Tangiwai Disaster and the Nicholls Family

Manawatū Heritage2020-03-23T18:03:19+00:00

  The Nicholls family was one of two families that lost five members in the Tangiwai train disaster – the worst affected families. The other family was Benton of Marton.  

Raymond Nicholls was a mechanic for the International Harvester Company in Palmerston North. Memories of his son Jack at Russell Street School is captured by Guy Broadley in the book Jack Nicholls: Our Russell Street School Classmate.  

The Nicholls family were embarking on a holiday to Kerikeri in the far north. They travelled by the north bound express train from Palmerston North, destined for Auckland on the 24 December 1953. The children’s grandparents were to stay in their house at 117 Russell Street over Christmas. The family travelled second class on the fateful night when at 10:21 pm the train crashed through Tangiwai Bridge that had been weakened by a 6-metre high lahar from Mount Ruapehu. As the carriages plunged into the river, they were destroyed by the torrent of water, mud, ice and rocks.  

Young Jack was never found. 

In the Manawatu Evening Standard on 27 December 1953:

Whole Family Lost A few nights ago the house at 117 Russell Street, Palmerston North, was a normal, happy family household. The train wreck at Tangiwai changed all that, for the occupants of the home, Mr and Mr RH Nicholls, and their three young children were all killed in the tragic circumstances of the crash.  The family left on the north-bound express on Christmas Eve for a holiday at Keri Keri North Auckland. The children were James (aged 13), Jack (11) and Paul (9). Mr and Mrs Nicholls were well-known and popular residents of Palmerston North. Mr Nicholls was employed as an engineer by the International Harvester Company.  

A small silver plaque in All Saints Church bears the name of the three boys who were all scout and cubs. Their father Raymond was a member of the Scout Group Committee. Along with the plaque a lamp was also place on the wall in the family’s memory. The area of the church became known as the Boy Scout and Girl Guide Corner.  

The Nicholls family were:

Eva (Lottie) 46 years 

Raymond Herbert 50 years  

Jack Raymond 11 years  

Paul Alan 9 years 

Herbert James (Jim) 13 Years