Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by John Stacpoole, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996. It was updated in January, 2021.
Ada Chadwick was born at Paparoa, North Auckland, New Zealand, on 13 September 1867, the sixth child of John Chadwick, a farmer, and his wife, Hannah Mary Blakeley. The Chadwick family had emigrated from Lancashire, England, arriving in Auckland on the Gala in December 1865.
John Chadwick took up bush-clad land on the Pahi River, under the auspices of the Albertland settlement, but about 1868 moved to the Pahi landing where he set up a store for the benefit of fellow settlers. Once they were of school age Ada and her sisters walked several miles to Paparoa's famous 'bush boarding school' each Monday morning, then home again on Saturday.
In 1874 or early 1875 the family moved to Aratapu. There John Chadwick established a general store, one of the largest north of Auckland, and founded a choral society. When Hannah Mary Chadwick received a legacy in about 1882, they moved to Auckland. The family took a prominent part in the musical life of the city, John as deputy conductor of the Auckland Choral Society (then conducted by Carl Schmitt) and Hannah Mary as a leading English-trained soprano. Ada was a competent pianist. She was also good at sports, and many years later recounted how at the age of 16 she had won a mixed doubles tennis championship, partnered by lawyer Sam Hesketh.
In the mid 1880s Ada Chadwick met Richard Edward Pilgrim, a Pukekohe flour mill owner some 25 years her senior. They married at Pukekohe on 2 March 1888; their only child, Richard, died nine days after his birth in 1890. In the 1890s the Pilgrims' mill lost its water power. Their livelihood gone, by 1901 the couple had moved to Waiorongomai, near Te Aroha, where Richard managed a goldmine. About 1903 they retired to Whanganui and there Ada discovered her gift for healing. She began to massage the crippled hand of a child whom she was teaching to play the piano as therapy. The hand was cured and people began coming to her with physical ailments. Soon she found herself with a practice as a healer.
In 1909 or thereabouts the Pilgrims went to live in Palmerston North, where Ada Pilgrim was listed in directories as a 'specialist'; then, some five years later, they moved to Auckland. She bought a handsome villa on Khyber Pass Road to which a constant stream of people came for treatment. Ada Pilgrim's method of healing was a form of physiotherapy before that term was in general use. She was able to relieve complaints such as tic douloureux which were resistant to conventional treatment. Many of her patients were sent by medical practitioners, whose respect she had quickly gained. She continued to work as a healer after her husband's death in 1926 and was practising well into her 80s. She believed that she had a gift, a kind of energy, which it was her duty to use. She was adept not only at relieving pain but also at giving reassurance and reconciling patients to that which could not be cured.
Ada Pilgrim was a commanding figure – she was not averse to being told that she looked like Queen Mary. Formally Anglican, she had the unassailable religious faith of many of her generation, joined to a conviction of the essential goodness of humanity. She never forgot her youth at Kaipara and had a fund of stories about well-known Aucklanders, which she told in a forthright voice, vibrant with laughter.
Ada Pilgrim's hope that she might live to be 100 was not realised. She died at Elmstone Nursing Home in Auckland on 7 July 1965 aged 97. At her funeral, the officiating minister described her as one of the most remarkable women of her generation.