THIS weekend marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the North Riding of Yorkshire Constabulary.

It was established on October 14, 1856 and its jurisdiction extended throughout the county with the exception of the boroughs of Middlesbrough, Richmond and Scarborough. These established their own police forces, while York was also a separate force.

The North Riding was Yorkshire's second largest county with its administrative headquarters at Northallerton. It was about 44 miles from north to south and 76 miles from east to west with a population of less than a quarter of a million. It boasted some of the finest countryside in England such as Swaledale, Wensleydale, Teesdale, the Vale of York and the North York Moors, plus a stunning coastline and Yorkshire's highest mountain, Mickle Fell. Boulby cliff, England's highest, was also within the county, as were the seaside communities of Redcar, Saltburn, Whitby and Scarborough, and fishing villages such as Robin Hood's Bay, Runswick Bay and Staithes.

Essentially rural in character, the North Riding did not boast much industry with the exception of its north-east corner around the Tees estuary and, indeed, it was once described as being in a state of perfect tranquillity. Order was maintained by the county's magistrates and parish constables, so the formation of a county-wide police force was not welcomed.

The need for an organised police force had been recognised by a Royal Commission in 1836, as a result of which the County Police Act of 1839 was passed. This was a permissive Act, which meant it did not compel the authorities to establish a police force, but merely gave them permission. Many counties, however, did not agree and did not establish police forces. Indeed, there was deep resentment against the idea in the North Riding with petitions saying a police force was unnecessary and an unwelcome burden on the county's rates.

It did not take long for villains in counties with new police forces to realise that unpoliced areas offered rich pickings, so they moved in to continue their activities. This made the Government even more determined to establish paid constabularies and it passed the County and Borough Police Act of 1856, which resulted in the establishment of the North Riding Constabulary. It consisted of a chief constable and 50 men.

The chief constable, Capt Thomas Hill, lost no time asking for funds to pay, equip and clothe his new force, along with a headquarters and transport for his officers.

There is no doubt Capt Hill, a former military officer, was ideal for the new post because he moved swiftly and positively. He wanted the best from his newly-appointed officers and stressed the need for co-operation with neighbouring forces.

His first general order outlined his vision and established a code of conduct for his officers. His innovations included providing a bible at every police station and establishing a library so that his officers could make themselves worthy of promotion.

Slates were issued to police stations so that messages could be conveyed between the officers and men, but there were few records of incidents. Serious crimes, deaths and suicides were noted in the files, but minor events were dealt with on the spot with no records kept.

Juvenile crime was not recorded either; children found stealing or committing other offences were chastised on the spot by a constable or else he ensured the parents imposed suitable punishment.

In less than a year, the force's strength rose to 105 officers in eight divisions based on Leyburn, Whitby, Pickering, Stokesley, Gilling near Richmond, Easingwold, Malton and Northallerton. The only form of transport, other than the new railways, were horse-drawn vehicles and, if the superintendent at Malton wanted to visit his constable in Bilsdale, it meant a journey of two days.

Capt Hill retired due to ill health in 1898 and his successor was Maj Sir Robert Bower, said to be the inspiration for Edgar Wallace's Sanders of the River. He set about modernising the force; in 1901 electric light was fitted at force headquarters and, in 1902, a telephone was installed at Malton police station, with Easingwold, Thirsk, Yarm, Pickering, Bedale and Easingwold following a year later.

He persuaded the police committee to allow him to buy a motor car too, the first in the force. It was a single-cylinder Argyll which cost £300 and bore the registration number AJ 1, which is still in use. Police radio was installed at headquarters in 1925 at a cost not exceeding £50.

Sadly, Maj Bower died in 1929, but was succeeded by another military gentleman with a distinguished record, Lt Col J C Chaytor. From a famous Yorkshire family, he was still chief constable when the force celebrated its centenary in 1956. Three chief constables in 100 years is probably some kind of record. Among his innovations was the motor patrol division (1931), with later patrol cars being equipped with radio.

Because the North Riding was largely agricultural, women police officers were not considered necessary, although the Women's Auxiliary Police Corps was formed in 1941 to work as telephonists, clerks and vehicle drivers while serving policemen were in the armed services during the Second World War. The first policewomen, ten in total, were appointed in 1946.

In 1968, the North Riding Constabulary was amalgamated with York City Police and the East Riding Constabulary to form the York and North-East Yorkshire Police, but leaving the boundaries unchanged. This was short-lived, however, because the administrative county of North Yorkshire was created in 1974. This included slices from the West Riding such as Harrogate, Skipton, Ripon, Tadcaster and Selby, with more from the East Riding such as Norton and Filey, but it cast some areas, such as Mickle Fell along with parts of Teesdale and Teesside, into County Durham.

Although the North Riding still exists with its ancient boundaries, its acres are now administered by various authorities. But, while its very own constabulary disappeared nearly 40 years ago, it is not forgotten.

A sad item of news is that numbers of barn owls are dwindling alarmingly. Officials from the Barn Owl Trust consider the fall to be catastrophic, with reductions of up to 75 per cent in recent years.

Apart from the question of vanishing habitats, it seems the owls have suffered badly in our recent bizarre weather conditions. Bad weather meant the food supply for barn owls was drastically reduced and heavy rain affected their plumage to make their legendary silent flight impossible while hunting. Furthermore, a cold March and a wet May killed many parent birds, with attempts to produce broods later also being hampered by heavy rain.

One pleasant outcome is that farmers and landowners have been placing food on their premises in an attempt to encourage barn owls to remain and breed. This powerful support from farmers and landowners is not new, however. Because barn owls prey on pests such as rats and mice, they are most welcome in farmland and, in the past, barns would be constructed with entrances so that barn owls could sleep and nest there. Now, of course, many barns have been converted into dwelling houses, which is another nail in the coffin of these handsome and useful birds.

Because the cry of the barn owl resembles a human scream and its white feathers make it appear ghost-like in silent flight, it has earned itself a reputation for being associated with evil and death. Geoffrey Chaucer described it as a prophet of woe and mischance and, indeed, it is still widely known as the screech owl. It is not evil, however, and we should all do our utmost to ensure it does not disappear entirely from our landscape.