Story: Wells, Ada
Teacher, feminist, community worker, city councillor
This biography was written by Philippa Fogarty and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993
Ada Pike was born at Shepherd's Green, near Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England, on 29 April 1863, the daughter of Maria Beckett and her husband, William Henry Pike, a journeyman wheelwright. In 1873 she travelled on the Merope with her parents, three sisters and one brother to New Zealand. The family arrived at Lyttelton on 31 October.
Ada attended Avonside School (which became part of Christchurch East School) from 1874, where, under the tuition of Henry Hill, she quickly showed her natural talents for Classics and languages. In 1876 she attended Christchurch West School and from 1877 to 1881 was employed there as a pupil-teacher. In 1881 she was awarded the university junior scholarship; she attended Canterbury College and passed the first part of her BA in 1882. For a short period she was employed as an assistant teacher under Helen Connon at Christchurch Girls' High School. Here she strove to pass on to her pupils her love of music, poetry and languages.
On 7 January 1884 she married Harry Wells, an organist, at Christchurch; they were to have three daughters and one son. Harry's volatile temper and continual drinking meant that he was unable to hold steady employment, and Ada was often forced to take sole responsibility for the economic and emotional support of her family. She took teaching positions and accepted private patients for massage and healing. It was said that her delicate, sensitive hands 'possessed a healing touch that came from the depths of her spirit.'
By the late 1880s an active campaign for women's enfranchisement was being organised. Ada Wells had always held strong beliefs on women's rights and the suffrage campaign enabled her to put her theories into action. While Kate Sheppard provided a public face to the cause, Wells's talents as a fervent, efficient organiser and campaigner were invaluable to the women's suffrage movement – talents recognised both by Sheppard and the movement as a whole.
When women won the vote Wells realised that this victory was merely the first in a long battle to achieve equality for women. While many of the suffrage campaigners retired from public life after 1893, Wells continued to take an active role in local and national politics. She argued in favour of free kindergartens, universal access to secondary education, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, and the reform of local government, the charitable aid system and prisons.
In 1892 Ada Wells, with Professor Alexander Bickerton, founded the Canterbury Women's Institute, of which she was president for many years. This was one of many offices she was to hold. In 1896 she became the first national secretary of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, and in 1898 she helped to spearhead the campaign for the formation of the Canterbury Children's Aid Society. In 1899 she became one of the first two women to be elected to the Ashburton and North Canterbury United Charitable Aid Board, serving as a member until 1906 in spite of the antagonism of male members of the board to her presence. In addition to this she was associated with the Prison-gate Mission, an organisation engaged in the rehabilitation of prisoners. She was a member of the National Peace Council of New Zealand and worked with groups providing aid to conscientious objectors during the First World War.
Ada Wells was also active in the campaign to amend the electoral law to enable women to be elected to Parliament. In 1917 she stood as a Labour candidate and became the first woman to be elected to the Christchurch City Council; this is perhaps how she is best remembered.
Ada Wells died at Christchurch on 22 March 1933, survived by her four children. Harry had died in 1918. In her lifetime she was to become a prominent and, at times, controversial public figure. She played a pivotal role in the advancement of women and was a tireless campaigner in the fight for women's equality and economic independence. Her views were no doubt strengthened by her marital experience. Wells's contribution to Christchurch, especially in the interests of women and children, was invaluable and sadly is often overlooked.