In 1839, Durham University (founded in 1832) resolved to establish an astronomical observatory. By 1841, the Observatory building, designed by Anthony Salvin, was complete. As at other astronomical observatories, meteorological observations were necessary from the start because air temperature was needed for the calculation of refraction. Mean values for pressure, temperature and rainfall began to appear in the Durham Advertiser as early as 1841 and, from 23 July 1843, observations were noted systematically in bound volumes currently held in the University Library on Palace Green.
The meteorological station is located on a gently sloping south-facing lawn in front of the Observatory building, on a ridge less than one kilometre southwest from Durham Cathedral, at 54º 46’ 06” N, 1º 35’ 05” W and 102 metres above sea level; the general situation of the site has changed little over the years. At no time has there been need to move the meteorological station, as has happened in many other cities, so that Gordon Manley could be especially proud to create a temperature series based on the second longest continuous record at one site at a university in Britain, after that of the Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford (where the record dates from 1766). Owing to some gaps in the record, the long-term temperature record is presented from 1850 and the rainfall record from 1952.
Gordon Manley’s original and seminal work on the temperature series takes us back to the time when pens, pencils and “totting up” prevailed. As head of the young Department of Geography from 1928, he contributed papers on the climate of Durham and the north Pennines and began his interest in establishing the Durham temperature series as comparable to that of Oxford.
The complexity of problems met in standardising the temperature series make his account (Manley 1941) a classic illustration of the fact that it is seldom enough simply to accumulate instrumental measurements of climatic conditions: “differences in exposure, in hours of observation, in instrumental corrections and even in the observers’ predilections must all be accounted for”. Manley’s work at Durham laid the foundation for his Central England Temperature record, a series dating from 1694 and maintained to this day.