Snow in Northland

On 30 July 1849, Richard Davis, an Anglican missionary in the Bay of Islands, made this surprising entry in his daily weather diary: “Hail storms. This morning the southern hills and Poutahi covered with snow.” The next day, he noted that the hills were “again covered with snow.”

The Davis family - Richard and Mary and their children - lived at the Church Missionary Society’s station at Waimate North, inland from Paihia, and the snow he referred to had just fallen on the hills behind the small mission settlement. It wasn’t the only extreme weather he would record in the nine years he documented Northland’s climate, but it was probably the most unexpected.

Image: James Richardson. An engraving from the Missionary Register showing the mission station at Waimate with Bishop Selwyn's house, left of centre. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 4-1274. 

There are two weather registers by Richard Davis in Special Collections at the Central City Library, and together they cover the period from 1839-44 and 1848-51. The volumes are foolscap-sized notebooks, and in them he recorded the temperature at 9am and again at midday at Waimate North and later at Kaikohe after he and his family moved there in 1845. At midday he also recorded the atmospheric pressure, wind direction and made remarks on the general weather conditions.

The two diaries remained in the Davis family until 1918, when the first of them (NZMS 378) was presented to the Old Colonists Museum by Richard’s youngest son John King Davis. After the Museum closed, this volume was transferred to Auckland Public Library. The second volume, NZMS 14, was presented directly to the Library by John’s widow in 1923 and they are now part of Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections at the Central City Library. 

Image: James Richardson. Looking north east from the vicinity of Hobson Street, with Albert Barracks. 1852.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 4-9016. 

We now fast forward eighty-five years to 2008. Dr Andrew Lorrey is a principal scientist with the National Institute of Weather and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and he leads the Climate Present and Past project, which focuses on climate change and historic climate research. In 2008, he came across a reference to the Davis weather diaries in the National Register of Archives and realised that the data Richard Davis had collected could be of significance to his own work. In the 1850s, the Royal Engineers, who were stationed in Auckland, had begun making regular instrument-based weather measurements and these were some of the earliest known long-term data for New Zealand. The Davis records clearly pre-dated the Royal Engineer records, but would they prove to be accurate enough to be of value?

Dr Lorrey and his NIWA colleague Petra Pearce contacted Manuscripts Librarian Kate de Courcy at the Central City Library and were given access to the Davis weather diaries. They cross-referenced the measurements against logs from expeditionary ships anchored in the Bay of Islands in 1840 (including James Clark Ross’s HMS Erebus and Dumont D’Urville’s Astrolabe and Zelee) and verified their accuracy. Dr Lorrey describes these records in his testimony in support of registration of the Richard Davis Weather Registers on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register as “some of the oldest continuous, multi-year and multi-daily weather observations in Oceania outside of continental Australia. These meteorological registers are special because they represent a contribution to the earliest scientific heritage for New Zealand”.

Image: Unknown photographer. Portrait of Reverend Richard Davis, 1850s or 1860s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 5-2735-16. 

So, who was Richard Davis?

Davis was born into a farming family from the village of Piddletrenthide in Dorset, and he was thirty-four when he arrived in Northland with his wife Mary and their six children. (There would be three more children born before Mary’s death in 1837, and a son from a later marriage to Jane Holloway King). At the time of his arrival he had only been with the Church Missionary Society (CMS) a year, but his mix of piety and practical skills were clearly what the society was looking for. The family settled at the Mission Station in Paihia, where Richard would work for the next six years as a gardener, teacher and lay preacher. 

Image: Ron Clark. Te Waimate Mission House at Waimate North, about 1950s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1207-1649.

Image: Ron Clark. Gravestones in the churchyard at St John the Baptist church, Waimate North, with the old Clarke homestead in the distance, 1950s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1207-1648.

In 1830 Richard and Mary were asked to go to Waimate North, inland from Paihia, where Samuel Marsden had bought land from Ngāpuhi. They and fellow missionaries William Yate, James Hamlin and George Clarke and their families were tasked with developing a mission station and farm. Understanding the local climate was essential to understanding how to farm successfully in this new setting, and it was after he moved to Waimate North that Richard began to collect weather data in earnest. In 1843 he was ordained an Anglican minister and two years later he was sent to Kaikohe. He returned to Waimate North in 1854 and remained there until his death in 1863. He is buried in the cemetery of the Te Waimate Mission House.

Image: Creator unknown. Illustration of Swarraton, Waimate, Bay of Islands, unknown date.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 5-1951.

One hundred and eighty years later, the Richard Davis records have not only provided a baseline for climate science research in New Zealand, they have also been incorporated into important international climate databases that use historic data to produce models to look at early weather patterns and predict future change. In 2020, the two weather diaries were accepted into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, where they join the Church Missionary Society’s archive in the Hocken Collections, University of Otago Library. The CMS records include Davis' personal diary. 

Image: Richard Davis. NZMS 378 Register of thermometer and barometer [Jan 1 1839-Jan 31 1844; Jan 1 1848-March 31 1849. Extract showing the record for early February 1840. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

One final point of interest about the diaries: Waimate North is just over 20 kilometres west of Waitangi. Richard Davis wasn’t present when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, but thanks to the observations he made that day, we know that on Thursday 6th of February 1840, the weather was fine, variable and a relatively cool 19 degrees. 

Author: Kirsty Webb, Principal Curator, Archives & Manuscripts, Heritage Collections


Davis, Richard. NZMS 378 Register of thermometer and barometer [Jan 1 1839-Jan 31 1844; Jan 1 1848-March 31 1849], and NZMS 14 Register of thermometer and barometer April 1849 [to 20 September 1851]. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Huffadine, Leith. “The ‘weather detectives’ using clues from the past to study changing climate”. Stuff, 12;58 p.m., Dec 06 2017., accessed 23/07/2019.

Lorrey, A. M. and Chappell, P.R. “The ‘dirty weather’ diaries of Reverend Richard Davis: insights about early colonial-era meteorology and climate variability for northern New Zealand, 1939-1851”, Climate of the Past, vol. 12, pp. 553-573, 2016. (See also online link

Lorrey, A.M. Testimony in support of registration of the Richard Davis Weather Registers on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, November 2019.


  1. The graveyard at Te Waimate is so much neater and tidier now, i've seen a few Davis names there.


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