The Tale of a Famous Paekākāriki Tea Leaf Reader: Ursula Somerset Beeson

Behind the mysterious sight of a boarded-up old cottage on the northern boundary of Campbell Park lies the story of a remarkable woman. Get a glimpse into the life of colourful Paekākārikian, Ursula Beeson, from Judith Galtry then read her full article on Xplore Paekākāriki here.

“So many people have told me I should write my autobiography and that I have had a very interesting life. Well, when I was living it in my young days, I was too busy living it to notice whether it was interesting or not. Back at this age, I realise it was, and I’ve lived through some interesting times.”

Miss Ursula Beeson (1909-1994) lived in Paekākāriki for an unknown period between the 1970s and early 1990s. Her cottage was at the ocean end of Paneta Street, up behind and slightly to the south of the old dairy halfway along The Parade. Her cottage still sits uninhabited with direct access via a pathway to Campbell Park. Here, she could often be seen walking her dogs.

Many people have stories of Miss Beeson, but little is known of her actual history, aside from an interview conducted in 1981 in Paekākāriki by Wellington actor Rose Beauchamp and a 1984 article published in Wellington Cosmo (later Wellington City magazine). Miss Beeson was then in her seventies.

Miss Beeson’s life was filled with travel and experience, and with interesting and famous people. The transcript of her interview with Rose resonates with worldliness, irony, and observational powers. An engaging and enlightened talker and a voracious reader, she loved the classics, especially Charles Dickens’ humour. As a child, she used to read him to her mother when her spirits needed lifting. The full Virginia Woolf collection sat on display in her Paekākāriki living room, along with books by Janet Frame with whom she shared a birthday.

It is difficult to pinpoint when Miss Beeson arrived in New Zealand, or what brought her here. But it must have been sometime prior to 1962. Following a stint in Wellington where she held a variety of jobs – nine years with an insurance company followed by four years with the Ministry of Defence – Miss Beeson moved to Paekākāriki. Here, as elsewhere, her charisma ensured an endless train of clients. Among them were many of Wellington’s glitterati from the theatre, political and academic worlds, or what one ex-client called ‘the Groovy Set.’ These included workers from Avalon’s TV studio, a prominent ex national broadcaster, a well-known actor and producer, and a celebrated ex-politician and academic.

Despite her otherworldly air, Miss Beeson was a businesswoman of sorts, like her spiritualist mother before her. But the trade in tea leaf reading and her tarot card side-line could hardly have been lucrative. Most of her well-heeled customers – or ‘sitters’ in the parlance of teacup reading – made only a small donation, often in the form of oranges for herself or meat for her many pets. Her reluctance to charge visitors may have been a hangover from her time in New York City’s Gypsy Tearooms, where it was illegal to take money for a reading.

A fall in the grounds of her Paneta Street cottage brought Miss Beeson’s time in Paekākāriki to an end. Admitted to Ewart Hospital on Newtown’s hill, the last reported sighting was of her sitting up in bed, her long, grey hair freshly washed and, incongruously, tied in pigtails with pink ribbons. A gaggle of nurses surrounded her, jockeying to have their tea leaves read by their illustrious captive.

While in hospital, she rang a Paekākāriki friend dramatically announcing, ‘I just want to tell you that I’ve fallen in love with a Man!’ This is the last recollection of Miss Beeson, at least among those people interviewed.

Miss Beeson died in 1994. Her life was marked by loneliness and geographical displacement, but also by devoted friendship, and an unusual and highly sought-after skill. She enhanced the lives of most of those who came into her orbit. Her magic, whatever it was, was real.

Read the full article here.

Miss Ursula Beeson (age 75), Paekākāriki, Wellington Cosmo, December 1984.

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