Ursula Bethell - 1874-1945

Mary Ursula Bethell was born on 6 October 1874 at Horsell, Surrey, England. Her father Richard had arrived in Canterbury, New Zealand in 1852. He bought the Burnham Run, not far from Christchurch.

In 1873 Richard Bethell married Isabel Annie Lillie. Her father, a doctor of theology and a Presbyterian minister, had been a magistrate in Tasmania before he brought his family to New Zealand. He became the Presbyterian minister at Papanui. Richard and Isabel sailed to England for an extended honeymoon, and Ursula was born while they were there. Her birthday, the 6th of October 1874, was St Faith’s Day, a fact remembered long afterwards when a name was given to a house in Christchurch.

The family returned to New Zealand in 1875, settling in Nelson, where a son, Marmaduke, was born. The Burnham Run had been sold and a year later, in 1876, Richard bought ‘Pahau Pastures’ near Culverden. This property still belongs to the Bethell family.

In 1881, they moved again and settled in Rangiora, their new home being `Iffley’ on Fernside Road. Rangiora at that time consisted of a few streets, with the houses standing in large sections. A third child, Rhoda, had now arrived. The three children, close to one another in age, were growing up in open and pleasant places.

Ursula remembered Rangiora with affection. She loved the Ashley River, close enough to her home to be reached for frequent outings. Beyond the river, were the Downs, and further still, looming over the landscape was Mount Grey.

In 1885, Richard Bethell died of pneumonia and the family moved to Christchurch about 18 months later. Ursula attended school in Park Terrace, and then Christchurch Girls’ High School.

In 1889, she was taken to England and entered a girls’ school in Oxford. She also spent a year at a Swiss school, and here through daily usage, she was able to become fluent in French, and articulate in German.

Ursula was 18 when she returned to Christchurch. There was no suggestion that she should prepare herself for an occupation or profession, though she was drawn to the arts, and felt sometimes that she could be a painter. Her family had money, and no doubt it was assumed that presently she would marry. She became active in parish work, and became involved in Sunday School, and social work among working class boys. In the next year or two, she began to interest other people in the formation of a club for boys. She came to know Sir John Hall, a former Prime Minister and now an elder statesman and a successful and wealthy farmer. When he died in 1907, his bequest included an amount to establish the Boys’ Gordon Hall. Ursula became a founding member of the Trust, and remained with it until near the end of her life. The 'Gordon Hall' was finally incorporated in the YMCA.

At the end of 1895, a second and longer visit to Europe with her brother became possible. For two years she studied painting in Geneva, and music in Dresden. When she returned to London she joined an Anglican community known as the Grey Ladies, and was soon working with boys’ clubs in South London. This was probably a crucial point in her life, a moment when she decided that her vocation must be religious and social rather than with the arts.

In 1901, Ursula became ill with pneumonia and spent several months recuperating in California before returning to New Zealand in 1903. After a quiet year at 'Pahau Pastures' she sailed again for England. It was during this time she met Effie Pollen, a woman from New Zealand, who became her companion. She was back in New Zealand in 1908, this time for a stay of five years, again being involved in Sunday school work at St Mary’s Merivale. She conducted her classes quietly and yet firmly.

She lived in Webb Street in a house belonging to her mother, which became her own property after her mother’s death. Many years later it was to become St Faith’s House of Sacred Learning.

Ursula again left for Britain, and was in Switzerland in 1914 when the First World War began, escaping to England on the last train to get through. During the war she worked at the New Zealand Soldiers’ Club, and was involved with children’s organisations. After the war ended Ursula returned to Christchurch. She was now a woman of 45, much travelled, and with a knowledge of the human experience. In 1924 she set up home with Effie in Rise Cottage in Westenra Terrace on the Cashmere Hills, with views of the Southern Alps, Kaikoura Ranges and the Canterbury Plains. The garden was Ursula’s special interest. It was here that she composed some of New Zealand’s finest poetry.

She first published some work in an Australian journal under the initials E H and her first collection, From a garden in the Antipodes, was under the pseudonym Evelyn Hayes. She had converted the name of her great-great-grandfather, Sir Henry Hayes of Cork, a man of lively character for whom she had come to feel a special affection. The published collection was received favourably and Ursula began submitting poems to The Press and the North Canterbury Gazette under the initials E H.

In November 1934, Effie Pollen died suddenly. The loss of her dear friend of 30years left Ursula devastated and from that time on she wrote very little poetry, apart from six memorial poems to her friend. However, in 1936, a new collection, Time and Place, was published and dedicated to Effie’s memory.

Ursula had always been a strong advocate for the admission of women to the ministry, and in 1935, she gifted the house in St Albans to the Anglican Church as accommodation for St Faith’s House of Sacred Learning where deaconesses were trained. She took up residence in one of its converted flats.

In her later years, she travelled frequently, before cancer of the cheekbone was diagnosed. St Faith’s closed in 1943 and the house was leased to the Rev. Merlin Davies and his wife. Ursula continued living there with them while she sorted her affairs before her death. She died on 15 January 1945 and is buried with her parents in the Anglican Cemetery in Rangiora.

Ursula Bethell was one of New Zealand’s pioneer poets. One of her friends claimed, 'New Zealand wasn’t truly discovered in fact, until Ursula Bethell "very earnestly digging" raised her head to look at the mountains. Almost everyone had been blind before.' She sought to capture her response to the natural environment of her Canterbury home, informed and interpreted by her deep Christian faith. Her poetry searched for meaning and identity in New Zealand, as she battled the tensions between her English origins and her New Zealand adopted home.




The Christchurch Writer’s Walkway. Canterbury branch, New Zealand Society of Authors.
Collected poems : Ursula Bethell. Edited by Vincent O’Sullivan
Holcroft, M H - Mary Ursula Bethell. Wellington : OUP, 1975.
Laura, Valerie - 'Bethell, Mary Ursula 1874-1945'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, updated 16 December 2003. URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz
Wood, Pauline, ed. - Women of the Waimakariri. Rangiora : Waimakariri District Women’s Suffrage Centennial Committee, c. 1993.