Page 1: Biography
Local politician, community leader
Bethell, Thyra Talvase
This biography, written by W. J. Gardner, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Marmaduke Bethell was born at Maitai Valley, Nelson, on 18 November 1876, the only son of Isabella Anne Lillie and her husband, Richard Bethell, a lawyer and sheepfarmer of Burnham, Canterbury. In 1877 Richard Bethell purchased 5,673 acres of land near Culverden in the Āmuri county, North Canterbury; it was named Pāhau Pastures and leased until his son was of age. Marmaduke was educated at T. S. Baker's French Farm school, Wanganui Collegiate School (1889–95) and Canterbury Agricultural College, Lincoln (1897–98). In 1896 he visited the Bethells' English home, Rise Hall; this contact with English gentry life had a lifelong effect on him. In 1899 he took up Pāhau Pastures. He was to prove a skilled farmer – his sheep frequently commanded top prices – and a great planter of trees.
On 30 November 1904, at Wellington, Bethell married Thyra Talvase Beetham. Thyra had been born at Brancepeth station, Wairarapa, on 5 December 1882, the daughter of Ruth Bidwill and her husband, Hugh Horsley Beetham. Apart from three weeks at a small private school in Wellington, she and her sister were taught by governesses. Though born into the runholding purple Thyra was on friendly terms with local Māori, who accorded her special status. After her birth, Māori leaders had visited her parents and gave her the name Ruarauhanga. Hōri Te Huki attended her wedding and presented her with gifts for her future children.
From about 1900 Āmuri county entered a period of social transition as the number of small farms increased. Runholders still dominated public life, however, and the chairman of the Āmuri County Council was always a runholder. Elected to the council in 1914, Bethell became chairman in 1917. The council under Bethell was not a progressive body: rates were held down, public services were few, and Bethell himself regularly cleaned up the main street of Culverden.
Marmaduke Bethell's leadership was social rather than political. He established himself as 'squire' of the Āmuri by his dignity, courtesy and sense of public duty – and by his distinctive English clothes and habit of addressing men simply by their surnames. He was known (though not to his face) as 'Marmie'. His long term of office (he served 18 years as chairman) may indicate a surviving tradition of local deference to an 'upper class', but Bethell set a tone of public life that many absorbed to the district's profit and which outlasted him. Replaced as chairman by another runholder in 1935, he remained a councillor until 1944.
Great as was Marmaduke Bethell's impact on the district, Thyra's was greater still. During the First World War her strong personality and status as the chairman's wife enabled her to establish a new kind of women's leadership. Women's voluntary work was in demand, and largely by use of the recently installed telephone system she organised Red Cross nursing at Hanmer Springs and supervised emergency measures in the influenza epidemic of November 1918. She was appointed an MBE in 1919. The Red Cross remained a lifelong interest: Thyra headed the Culverden sub-centre for over 50 years and was involved in the local and national organisation during the Second World War. She was made a councillor of honour of the New Zealand Red Cross Society in 1957.
Many organisations in the Āmuri district owed much to Thyra's work. She took a leading role in the establishment of Āmuri Hospital in 1922, and strenuously resisted its closing in 1967. The Culverden Anglican church was built and paid for largely through her fund-raising efforts. She founded the Culverden branch of the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmers' Union in 1929, and later set up several other branches. For 33 years she was president of the Hurunui provincial executive, and was elected a life member of the national body. Thyra was the automatic choice to head a new women's organisation or be its patroness.
Both Marmaduke and Thyra Bethell were involved in sporting and leisure activities. He was master of the Brackenfield Hunt from 1913 to 1925. Thyra excelled as horsewoman, both side-saddle and astride, and was a keen player of tennis and golf. As a girl she had learned woodcarving, and the homestead still features a fireplace surrounded in Māori motifs carved by her; it was exhibited in Wellington in 1904. The grounds of Pāhau Pastures were laid out under her direction. She was a skilled grower and judge of flowers and often used her vegetable garden to supply the district. Pāhau Pastures became the Āmuri's principal social centre, and something like a district pecking order was observed on its tennis courts.
Thyra Bethell became a legend in North Canterbury, dominating social life and welfare in the Āmuri. She had an insatiable interest in people and, though not without snobbery, could mix without regard to social distinction. Her immense self-confidence enabled her to ask for services and goods – and get them. She could have retired earlier than she did, but tended to regard herself as indispensable. She became more and more imperious and, to many, less gracious, and could reduce her helpers to tears.
Marmaduke Bethell died at Culverden on 23 February 1955; Thyra on 16 November 1972. There were two surviving sons. Between them, the Bethells provided leadership in a rural community over a long period and demonstrated a remarkable New Zealand version of noblesse oblige.