Ursula Bethell

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Mary Ursula Bethell, usually known as Ursula Bethell (6 October 1874 – 15 January 1945), was a New Zealand social worker and poet. Born in Horsell, Surrey, England,[1] she arrived in New Zealand with her family in 1875.[2]

Background and social work[edit]

Bethell was the eldest daughter of the well-to-do sheep farmer Richard Bethell and his wife Isabel Anne, née Lillie. Her father had emigrated initially in the 1860s.[1] She was educated at Rangiora primary school, Christchurch Girls' High School, a school in Oxford, and Swiss finishing schools, before returning to New Zealand in 1892 and devoting herself to charitable work. Bethell returned to Europe in 1895 to study painting in Geneva and music in Dresden.[2] Having enough private wealth to support herself, she took up social work in London with the Anglican organization Women Workers for God, or "Grey Ladies". By 1919 she was back permanently in New Zealand, in the Cashmere Hills near Christchurch, sharing a home, Rise Cottage in Westenra Terrace, with another returnee New Zealander, Effie Pollen.[3]

The theory that Bethell's relationship with Pollen was homosexual (which would have sat ill with her Anglicanism and her social aspirations in that period) was explored in some detail by the fellow poet Janet Charman, as a visiting scholar at the University of Auckland in 1997.[4]

Poet and salonnière[edit]

Bethell only began to write poetry at the age of about fifty and wrote little more after the death of Effie Pollen in 1934,[2] when she moved down into Christchurch, so that most of her output dates from the single decade of 1924–1934. Vincent O'Sullivan remarks, "She was surprised that people admired her 'garden' poems, often written as casual messages to friends.... By the late 1920s, she was also writing the more deliberate and intellectually adventurous poems which took their place in her later two books."[3]

When the New Zealand man of letters Charles Brasch visited Bethell, he found her at "the centre of an astonishingly diverse circle of interesting people, many of the younger of whom were so close to her that she almost directed their lives."[5] These included the crime writer Ngaio Marsh, the essayist M. H. Holcroft, the artists R. H. Field and Evelyn Margaret Page, the poets Blanche Edith Baughan and J. H. E. Schroder, and the musician Frederick Joseph Page.[3]

The poet and journalist Walter D'Arcy Cresswell argued that in literary terms, "New Zealand wasn’t truly discovered... until Ursula Bethell, 'very earnestly digging', raised her head to look at the mountains."[6]

All Bethell's work appeared anonymously, although in old age she became less keen to remain anonymous. She said her pseudonym, Evelyn Hayes, came from a great-great-grandfather, Sir Henry Hayes of Cork, who was "deported for life to Botany Bay for attempted abduction of a Quaker heiress."[7]

Ursula Bethell died in Christchurch on 15 January 1945.[3]

Published works[edit]

  • (As Evelyn Hayes) From a Garden in the Antipodes (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1929)
  • (As "The Author of Poems From a Garden in the Antipodes") Time and Place (Christchurch: Caxton, 1936)
  • (As "The Author of Time and Place") Day and Night: Poems 1924–1934, (Christchurch: Caxton, 1939)
  • Collected Poems, ed. Helen Simpson, (Christchurch: Caxton Press,1950), ( Kindle edition 2016, ASIN: B016QNELZ4)
  • Collected Poems, ed. Vincent O’Sullivan, (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1985 [1950])
  • Vibrant with Words: The Letters of Ursula Bethell, ed. Peter Whiteford (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005). ISBN 9780864735041[4]


  1. ^ a b Laura, Valerie. "Mary Ursula Bethell". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 10 December 2011.
  2. ^ a b c The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, ed. Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy (London: Batsford, 1990), p. 90.
  3. ^ a b c d Vincent O'Sullivan: "Introduction". In: Collected Poems (1985). Retrieved 8 April 2015.
  4. ^ a b Janet Charman: "My Ursula Bethell", Women's Studies Journal 14.2 (Spring 1998), pp. 91–108 Retrieved 8 April 2015.
  5. ^ Charles Brasch: Indirections, 1980, p. 302. Quoted by O'Sullivan.
  6. ^ "Ursula Bethell, Some Personal Memories", Landfall 2, December 1948, p. 283. Quoted by O'Sullivan.
  7. ^ Letter to Sidgwick and Jackson, Bethel's London publishers, July 1929. Quoted by O'Sullivan.