by George J. Dance


Mary Ursula Bethell (1874-1945). Courtesy New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre.

Mary Ursula Bethell (6 October 1874 - 15 January 1945) was a New Zealand poet and social worker.


Bethell was born in Horsell, Surrey, England, the oldest of 3 children of Isabella Anne (Lillie) and, Richard Bethell, a barrister.[1] Her parents, who had lived in New Zealand, returned there when she was 18 months old.[2]

After living in Tasmania, Nelson, New Zealand and Christchurch, they settled in 1881 in Rangiora, South Island. After her father's death in 1885, the family moved back to Christchurch, where Ursula attended Christchurch Girls' High School.[1]

In 1889 Bethell returned to England, to attend Oxford Girls' High School. In 1891 and 1892 she stayed at a boarding school in Switzerland, where she began writing poetry. She returned to Christchurch in 1892, and became involved in social work among working-class boys. She helped inaugurate Boys' Gordon Hall, and became a founding trustee of Boys' Gordon Hall Trust.[1]

In 1895 Bethell again returned to England, where she visited her paternal uncle's Yorkshire estate, Rise Hall. She spent the next 2 years studying music and painting in Germany and Switzerland, she returned to social work in London, joining the Women Workers for God in 1899.[1]

A bout of pneumonia forced her to leave the Gray Ladies in 1901. She then spent some time travelling, visiting California and then New Zealand, before returning to England in 1904 and resuming social work with the Church of England Central Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays. In October 1905 she kept house for her mother and sister at The Wilderness in Hampstead, assisted by another single woman from New Zealand, Effie Pollen.[1]

Ursula Bethell

Courtesy New Zealand Book Council.

When Pollen returned to New Zealand in 1910, Bethell followed her, buying a home in Christchurch and becoming active in parish work. She traveled to Europe again in 1913, and was in Switzerland when World War I broke, out, but managed to make it to England. During the war she worked 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 returned to Christchurch after the Armistice.[1]

In 1924 Bethell and Pollen began living together in Rise Cottage, a newly-built bungalow in the Cashmere Hills south of Christchurch, where they would live (except for a brief visit to England in 1926). Bethell began submitting poetry to The Home, an Australian magazine, under the name "Evelyn Hayes."[1]

In 1928 Bethell published her debut collection of poems, From a Garden in the Antipodes. The book was favorably reviewed in England and, by J.E.H. Schroder, in the Christchurch Press. Schroder and Bethell became friends, and he encouraged her to submit poetry to the Press and the North Canterbury Gazette. Through Schroder, she met other New Zealand writers, scholars, and artists, such as D'Arcy Cresswell, Eric McCormick, Monte Holcroft, Rodney Kennedy, Toss Woollaston and Basil Dowling. During the 1930s and 1940s, Bethell became a mentor to young artists and writers.[1]

Effie Pollen died in 1934; Bethell, feeling bereft, wrote little poetry after that, though in 1936 she published another collection, Time and Place (dedicated to Pollen). In 1935 she gave her house to the Anglican Church as accommodation for St. Faith's House of Sacred Learning, though she continued to live in an apartment at the house until her own death. She published another collection of poetry, Day and Night: Poems, 1924-1934, in 1939.[1]

Bethell died in 1945, and is buried at Rangiora Cemetery in Christchurch.[1]


Helen Simpson, 1940: ""Her spacious scholarship, wide humanity, and delicate perceptiveness have been, with exquisite craftsmanship, transmuted into poetry at once rich in content and finely austere in form. Hers is the most individual voice in New Zealand literature today."[3]



  • From a Garden in the Antipodes (as "Evelyn Hayes"). London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1929.
  • The Glad Returning, and other poems. London: A.H. Stockwell, 1932.
  • Time and Place: Poems. Christchurch, NZ: Caxton, 1936.
  • Day and Night: Poems, 1924-1934. Christchurch, NZ: Caxton, 1939.
  • Collected Poems. Christchurch, NZ: Caxton, 1950.
  • Collected Poems (edited by Vincent O'Sullivan). Auckland & New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.


  • Vibrant with Words: The Letters of Ursula Bethell (edited by Peter Whiteford). Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2005.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[4]

See alsoEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Valerie Laura, Bethell, Mary Ursula, New Zealand Dictionary of Biography 4, 1998. Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Web, Mar. 17, 2014.
  2. Bethell, {Mary) Ursula, Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature (edited by Roger Robinson and Nelson Wattie), Oxford University Press, 1998. New Zealand Book Council, Web, Mar. 17, 2014.
  3. Hugh Young, Mary Ursula Bethell, Queer History New Zealand. Web, Mar. 17, 2014.
  4. Search results = au:Ursula Bethell, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Mar. 17, 2014.

External linksEdit

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