One hundred and fifty years ago the Crown Surveyor, John Clutton, visited Oxfordshire to see the clearing and enclosure of the forest of Wychwood completed.

Six years previously, when Parliament had passed the Wychwood Disafforestation Act of 1853, he had reckoned the timber from the 1,970 Royal Forest would fetch almost £34,000. In 1859, he noted that the whole clearing project had been “all realized, except a small quantity left for ornament”. In those six years, not only the landscape of the west Oxfordshire Cotswolds, but also the lives of those living there changed forever; whether for better or worse remains a moot point.

For Charles Belcher, who became a tenant of Potters Hill, one of the seven new farms carved out of the former forest, life certainly took a turn for the better. His prize essay, Reclaiming the waste lands as instanced in Wychwood Forest, recounts how in just 16 months, between October 1856 and June 1858, the woods were felled and the land given to Lord Churchill of Cornbury (a cousin of the Duke of Marlborough and a former MP) in compensation for losing his role of Ranger of the Royal Forest.

To Mr Belcher, clearing the glades was a holy mission to be undertaken with typical Victorian high moral zeal. He sees himself as answering God’s call to “replenish the earth and subdue it” – quoting extensively from the passage in Genesis exhorting us all to “rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living creature that moves on the ground”.

First, the “living creatures”, in the shape of hundreds of deer (so much prized by earlier kings), were cleared and killed; then an army of men and boys got rid of the brushwood. Next the large trees were felled with the aid of the latest industrial machinery, their roots being subsequently burned. Fences appeared where people had hitherto been wont to roam, water supplies installed, farms built, and more than ten miles of new roads laid down. Churches in high Victorian Gothic appeared in the newly created parishes of Wychwood and Leafield (St Simon and St Jude in Milton-under-Wychwood, by GE Street, and St Michael in Leafield by George Gilbert Scott, with its rocket-shaped tower a landmark over the newly-cleared fields.) To Mr Belcher, the new Wychwood provided “honest employment to the horny hands of those who toil early and late for their daily bread”, displacing the old disorderly world of “poachers, idlers and thieves”.

To others, the new order meant a fight against low wages or, worse, unemployment and consequent hunger with no recourse to common lands on which to scratch out a living; or a long walk to the burgeoning towns to seek work in the new factories; or a sea journey to a new life in the colonies.

In this respect, the memorial at Shipton-under-Wychwood to the 17 men, women and children who drowned in the 1874 wreck of the Cospatrick, the ship taking them to New Zealand, seems particularly mournful. Could the ship have been built of Wychwood timbers? During these hard times, more people emigrated from west Oxfordshire than from anywhere else in England except the mining areas of Cornwall. Hardly less moving is the memorial at Ascott-under-Wychwood to the women imprisoned in 1873 for supporting their striking menfolk, labourers at one of the new forest farms. Order versus Disorder was the flavour of the time. And of the two, Disorder was seen, at least by the Establishment, as the ruling force within the Primitive Methodist movement that flourished in the area. This point was brought home to me last week after listening to a talk at Milton-under-Wychwood village hall by Dr Kate Tiller, lecturer in Local History at Kellogg College, Oxford. I gathered that the ‘Ranters’, as Primitive Methodists were mockingly dubbed, had much to do with the formation of rural trade unions.

And I pondered this over a drink at home which, in my case, is a converted Primitive Methodist chapel built in 1864. I thought of the letter to The Times written 150 years ago from someone signing himself, or herself, The Ghost of Wychwood.

The ‘Ghost’ wrote: “The farmer was well pleased with his rights of common,” adding that “gain and greed had carried the day” and that the forest had been replaced with turnips and Oxfordshire stone walls.