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Story: Bethell, Mary Ursula

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Bethell, Mary Ursula


Social worker, poet

This biography, written by Valerie Laura, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Mary Ursula Bethell was born at Horsell, Surrey, England, on 6 October 1874, the first of three children of Isabella Anne Lillie and her husband, Richard Bethell, a barrister. Both parents had lived in New Zealand in the 1860s, and soon after Ursula's birth they returned to the southern hemisphere. After a sojourn in Tasmania they moved to Nelson, New Zealand, and in 1878 to Christchurch. In 1881 the family settled in Rangiora. There, with her brother Marmaduke and sister Rhoda, Ursula enjoyed an outdoors life. There, too, she began her formal education with a governess, and wrote and illustrated stories. Richard Bethell died of pneumonia in April 1885 and about 18 months later the family moved to Christchurch, where Ursula attended Mrs Crosby's school in Park Terrace before enrolling at Christchurch Girls' High School.

In 1889, in the company of Sibylla Maude, Ursula sailed to England to attend the Oxford High School for Girls. Then from mid 1891 until mid 1892 she studied at a boarding school near Nyon in Switzerland. To these three years belong her earliest extant poems. In late 1892 she returned to Christchurch, where she had the prospect of a comfortable life supported by private means. Instead, motivated by a sense of noblesse oblige and a deepening Anglo-Catholic faith, she became involved in Sunday school and social work among working-class boys. She helped inaugurate the Boys' Gordon Hall and later became a foundation trustee of the Boys' Gordon Hall Trust.

Ursula Bethell again set out for England at the end of 1895, accompanied by her brother and a friend, and visited various parts of England, including Rise Hall, her paternal uncle's estate in Yorkshire. After two years in Germany and Switzerland spent studying music and painting, she began social work with the Lady Margaret Hall Settlement in the north Lambeth area of London. In 1899 she joined the Women Workers for God in south London (the 'Grey Ladies'), an Anglican community devoted to parish work. At the same time, she assisted Mary Lily Walker and her Dundee Social Union in Dundee, Scotland, and made frequent visits abroad.

In December 1901 Bethell suffered a life-threatening bout of pneumonia which forced her to withdraw from the Grey Ladies. Leaving England the following year she spent several months recuperating in the Santa Cruz mountains of California before reaching New Zealand in March 1903. Returning to England in 1904, via the United States, she resumed social work, this time with the Church of England Central Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays. As well, she frequently visited friends and relations in Scotland, France, Italy and Switzerland. From October 1905 she kept house for her mother and sister at The Wilderness, Hampstead, after abandoning her plan to establish it as a retreat for Christian workers. Effie Pollen, another single woman newly arrived from New Zealand, helped her run the house for three years.

After Effie departed for New Zealand to care for her father, Ursula followed and, in March 1910, purchased a house in St Albans, Christchurch, which she called Villa Jobiska. She entered into the work of the parish of St Mary's, Merivale, becoming vice president of the newly established Young Men's Guild, acting as secretary to the local missionary group, and providing accommodation for a sister of the Community of the Sacred Name, who had been appointed to assist the vicar.

At the end of 1913 Ursula Bethell once more travelled to England, this time via Java and India, and was in Switzerland when war broke out. She was fortunately able to leave for England on one of the last trains. In London she worked variously as a Cub mistress, an observer in a Montessori school, a member of a school care committee, a night-supply waitress at a New Zealand soldiers' club, and an assistant at an information office for soldiers. She also helped to establish a school of mothercraft towards the end of the war.

Ursula Bethell returned to Christchurch after the Armistice and, in August 1924, set up home with Effie Pollen in Rise Cottage, a newly built bungalow on the Cashmere Hills, with views of the Southern Alps, the Kaikōura Ranges and the Canterbury Plains. In 1926 they made a brief, final visit to England.

By the end of 1928 Ursula Bethell had not only made a garden out of the steep, clay slope of her property, but had also composed much of the poetry for which she is known today. She often enclosed poems in letters to friends, and published some in the Australian journal The Home under the pseudonym Evelyn Hayes. This was the name on the title page of her first collection, From a garden in the antipodes, published by Sidgwick and Jackson of London in 1929. The poems describe the garden, its inhabitants, and their activities, and are informed by Bethell's education, experience and meditative religious faith. They draw much of their imagery from the Canterbury landscape, which she explored during picnics and outings with Effie in their big, black Essex motor car.

The collection was favourably reviewed in England and, eventually, by J. H. E. Schroder in the Christchurch Press. Bethell became friendly with Schroder and with his encouragement began to submit poems to the Press and the North Canterbury Gazette under the initials EH. Also through Schroder, Bethell met other writers, scholars and artists, including D'Arcy Cresswell, Eric McCormick, Monte Holcroft, Rodney Kennedy, Toss Woollaston and Basil Dowling. She became a mentor to these younger people during the 1930s and 1940s, providing encouragement and (sometimes unwelcome) advice. All were impressed by the breadth of her knowledge and reading and her fastidious taste.

On 8 November 1934, a month after Ursula Bethell's 60th birthday, Effie Pollen died suddenly, leaving Ursula feeling utterly bereft. Letters to friends tell of her emotional pain and crisis of faith. She wrote very little poetry after this time, apart from six memorial poems addressed to her dear friend of 30 years. However, in 1936 Caxton Press published a further volume of her poems, Time and place, which she dedicated to Effie's memory.

A strong advocate of the admission of women to the ministry, in 1935 Ursula Bethell went ahead with plans to give the St Albans house to the Anglican church as accommodation for St Faith's House of Sacred Learning, a deaconess training institute. That year, at the invitation of the head deaconess, she took up residence in an apartment in her old house. From there she continued to encourage her young friends; she also travelled frequently and spent more time in hospital as cancer of the cheekbone developed. In 1939 another book, Day and night: poems 1924–1934, was published by the Caxton Press.

When St Faith's closed at the end of 1943, the house was leased to the Reverend Merlin Davies and his wife, formerly Kathleen Taylor. Ursula Bethell lived there with them, and they gave her the love and support she needed to sort through her papers and write her letters of farewell as she prepared for her death. That she faced the end with clarity is suggested in the view of mutability that underpins poems such as 'Pause':

In a very little while, it may be,
When our impulsive limbs and our superior skulls
Have to the soil restored several ounces of fertiliser,
The Mother of all will take charge again,
And soon wipe away with her elements
Our small fond human enclosures.

In 1944 there was a proposal to bring together all Ursula Bethell's poems in one volume, under her own name at last; however, she died, at Christchurch on 15 January 1945, before this work was published. She was buried in the Rangiora cemetery.

Ursula Bethell is recognised as one of the pioneers of modern New Zealand poetry. Like others of her generation she was forced to confront the tension between her English origins and sympathies and her New Zealand milieu. In addition she was drawn to examine the disjunctions between religious certainty and everyday experience. Her attempts at developing a poetic voice to express her enlarged understanding were bold and innovative; in all her observations she looked with new eyes.

How to cite this page:

Valerie Laura. 'Bethell, Mary Ursula', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4b29/bethell-mary-ursula (accessed 15 June 2024)