Adelaide Martens was born in London in 1845, the daughter of a sugar baker. There is little known of her early years, but when she was 17 she decided to emigrate to the antipodes. She obtained work as a stewardess and sailed to Australia, then on to New Zealand. While working as a stewardess on coastal boats between Invercargill and Christchurch she met Henry Hicks, a cook and steward on the same ship. His mother was English, and his father a freed Afro-American slave. Adelaide and Henry were married in Invercargill and moved to Dunedin, to live in Leith Street.
Henry continued his work on coastal boats and Adelaide obtained domestic work. In 1884 they moved to Mosgiel where Henry worked as a woodsman in the Big Bush. They had nine children, and when the youngest was still a toddler, Henry was kicked by his horse. He died from internal hemorrhage, leaving Adelaide with a large family and no certain work. At the time of Henry’s death they were living in a small house on the edge of the bush near the Silver Stream, and when this stream flooded she put the smaller children on the kitchen table to protect them from drowning. This experience encouraged her to shift into Mosgiel and higher ground.
When she found little in the way of domestic work in Mosgiel, she thought of her experience nursing passengers on the coastal boats and helping other women in childbirth. So she decided to open a nursing home. She bought a small dwelling in Mosgiel (which was added to as her work increased) and, aided by her two older daughters, began taking in patients. She was described as diminutive, energetic and very competent. She read books and studied what she could find on illness and treatment, and became very skilled. When the Hospitals and Charitable Institutions Act was passed in 1908 she applied for registration and became the first in the district to run a registered institution. This required regular auditing of standards of care, and proper recording of activities such as births.
She was once called to a serious accident in the Wingatui rail tunnel where there were deaths and serious injuries, and impressed all with her professionalism. She worked as a volunteer during the 1918 flu epidemic, and received a letter of thanks for this from the Otago Hospital and Charitable Aid Board. She offered voluntary counselling and support for female employees of the Mosgiel woollen mill. She also visited patients in their homes to nurse and treat them. She was an active supporter of the suffragette movement.
In 1922 she returned to England to visit brothers. A big farewell was held by the Mosgiel community, with a generous gift of money for her journey. While in England her visit was described in the London papers and she received an invitation to Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Mary. (She had met the Duchess of Cornwall and York in Dunedin in 1901.)
On the voyage home her ship and another collided. Severe damage was done to her ship, with a large hole torn in the side. In the evening when Adelaide left her cabin to find the stateroom, she was disorientated in the dark and very nearly stepped through the gaping hole. A near miss!
In 1927, Adelaide handed over the care of her nursing home to her daughter Edith. Adelaide Hicks died in 1930 at the age of 85.
Her daughter Edith continued to run the nursing home and retired in the 1940s.
Robert McAllister is a retired GP. He first learned of Adelaide Hicks through personal conversations with Edith Hicks (Adelaide Hick’s daughter) in the 1960s. Adelaide Hick’s Register of Births, and her diary with jottings of some nursing information she had gathered, are held in the archives of the Otago Medical School.
- Karen Duder. ‘Hicks, Adelaide‘, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993, updated November, 2013. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
- Papers Past
Also by Robert McAllister on Corpus: Stewart Peters: unqualified practitioner of medicine, dentristy and pharmacy