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Mary Ursula Bethell:

"Today I trimmed my lonely dwelling place with flowers"


Mary Ursula Bethell was born in Surrey of wealthy parents, but brought to New Zealand in infancy. She grew up in Rangiora, but studied at Oxford and in Switzerland. A devout Anglican, she taught and did social work in London (with the Women Workers for God, the "Grey Ladies").

She returned to Christchurch, built a house in Cashmere, and lived there for 10 years with another social worker, Effie Pollen, who came from Wellington to be with her. (The exact nature of their relationship can only be guessed at, and she would have considered it highly impertinent of us to do so.) At the age of 50 she began writing poetry. She gardened and mentored poets, while Effie kept the house. Charles Brasch found her "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." One of those was the painter Toss Woollaston (who mentions that the women had separate rooms):

"At first I was a lame follower in conversation, her wit and range were athletic and tremendous, her erudition so broad and deep that I felt sunk in it most of the time.

"But there were limits beyond which familiarity might not trespass. She had a background of grandeur which might show itself unexpectedly."

- Sage Tea

Helen Simpson (a niece of Dorothy Kate Richmond) wrote in 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: no other woman' and only one man's, can compare. (Who the man was, modern experts are uncertain.)

Her role in the creation of an indigenous New Zealand sensibility among poets and writers is generally regarded as central. D'Arcy Cresswell wrote, "New Zealand wasn't truly discovered ... until Ursula Bethell, "very earnestly digging" raised her head to look at the mountains. Almost everyone had been blind before."

When I am very earnestly digging
I lift my head sometimes, and look at the mountains,
And muse upon them, muscles relaxing.
I think how freely the wild grasses flower there,
How grandly the storm-shaped trees are massed in their gorges,
And the rain-worn rocks strewn in magnificent heaps ...

(from "Pause")


When Effie died in 1934, Ursula Bethell was devastated, writing a "Memorial" every year for the next six years on or around the anniversary. Our subtitle is from her second Memorial, "November 1936".

Ursula Bethell died in Christchurch on January 15, 1945.


October 1935

The green has come back, the spring green, the new green,
Darling, the young green upon the field willows,
And the gorse on the wild hills was never so yellow,
Together, together, past years we have looked on the scene.
The loved little bird is singing his small song,
Dearest, and whether the trill of the riro
Reminded, we wondered, of joy or of sorrow -
Now I am taught it is tears, it is tears that to spring time belong.
You were laughter, my liking, and frolic, my lost one,
I must dissemble and smile still for your sake,
Now that I know how spring time is heart-break,
Now you have left me to look upon all that is lovely, alone.



Go back to Chronology, Part 1.


From 1901 till she moved in with Ursula, Effie had lived in the handsome house built by her father, Dr Henry Pollen, now a bistro on the corner of Willis and Boulcott Sts, Wellington. The house was originally further up Boulcott St (Nos 10-12). Between those sites, on three floors of the old Majestic theatre building were, variously, the Gay Community Centre, Gay Switchboard, Pink Triangle Collective, Lesbian Centre, Women's Resource Centre, Lesbian and Gay Resource Centre, Lesbian and Gay Archives and Hecate Women's Health Centre, between 1979 and 1986.


riro = riroriro, the grey warbler, Gerygone igata. Click here to hear "his small song" (a 76KB .wav file) According to Te Arawa, it was so called from its warning to the birdwoman Kura Ngaituku that their prisoner, the hero Hatupatu, had escaped and stolen her property: riro means "carried off".

Written by Hugh Young.

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