Cora Hilda Blanche Wilding was born on 15 November 1888 in Christchurch, the daughter of Frederick Wilding, a barrister, and his wife, Julia Anthony. The ideals shaping her life were fostered during a happy and privileged childhood in a family that encouraged outdoor activities and healthy living. Her brother Anthony became a tennis player of international renown.
Cora was educated privately, then at Christchurch Girls' High School (1901–2) and Nelson College for Girls (1903–4), where she excelled at tennis, hockey and swimming. She was fond of drawing, and in 1907 enrolled at the Canterbury College School of Art to study under Sydney Thompson. In 1910 she joined Margaret Stoddart's sketching class, then spent the next two years in Europe, studying at the Bushey School of Painting in Hertfordshire, and with Frances Hodgkins and others in Paris.
During the First World War Wilding threw herself into patriotic work, studying home nursing in the hope of joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment in England. Thwarted in this, she entered the Dunedin School of Massage in 1917, becoming one of New Zealand's first qualified physiotherapists the following year. She worked with returned servicemen in Christchurch and Rotorua until 1920.
A generous allowance from her father enabled Wilding to travel and paint for the next four years: in Tahiti, North America, Europe and North Africa. Although she planned to earn her living as an artist, and exhibited with some success in Paris and London, she hated the commercial aspects of the life. She remained a member of the Canterbury Society of Arts and became a foundation member of The Group in 1927, but after this time believed she could offer more to the public weal by other means.
In 1928 she returned to Europe to study the effect of heliotherapy on children's illnesses. She was influenced by the work of Dr Auguste Rollier in Switzerland, and also by Sir William Arbuthnot Lane and Dr C. W. Saleeby, respective founders of the New Health Society and the Sunlight League in England. Wilding came home determined to found a similar organisation, and in May 1931 the Sunlight League of New Zealand was launched, 'To work for a healthier New Zealand and betterment of the race'. Its objectives were strongly eugenic and encompassed support for physical fitness, heliotherapy, clean air, dental hygiene, wholesome diet, children's health camps and youth hostelling. Wilding recruited prominent men to front the organisation, but as its honorary secretary remained the powerhouse behind its work. Although not a good administrator herself, she was brilliantly successful in getting others to implement her ideas.
Her most distinctive contribution to the league was as its health camp organiser. From her first camp at Geraldine in September 1931 until her last at Kaikoura in 1936, she carefully selected children (mainly girls) of 'good heredity' from 'self-respecting homes' who were 'capable of becoming good citizens'. The camps emphasised outdoor living, healthy food, daily sunbathing and swimming, appreciation of natural beauty and country life, and service to others. Unlike other camps of the period, drama, music and debating featured, along with elements of Maori culture – considered very advanced at the time. The camps were widely appreciated by participants and parents alike.
Wilding was also instrumental in founding the Youth Hostels Association of New Zealand. Her plans to set up hostels, based on those she had seen in Germany, were initially ridiculed. However, she found an ally in Sir Arthur Dobson, and in February 1932 cajoled several Banks Peninsula farmers into providing suitable accommodation for trampers. Another chain of hostels on the West Coast followed and from 1934 until 1938 Wilding acted as honorary organiser, visiting all hostels annually, preparing handbooks and arranging a youth hostellers' visit to Britain in 1937.
She brought to her new schemes all the passion and determination apparent in her childhood. Her energy and enthusiasm were infectious, but she was also reluctant to compromise, and her resentment of the transition to a nationally organised system of health camps in 1936, coupled with the death of her mother the same year, led her to resign from her Sunlight League and Youth Hostels Association posts in 1938. She resumed work as the league's secretary in 1944–45, and from 1947.
During the Second World War Wilding was again active in patriotic work. She organised groups to grow flowers and vegetables for soldiers' families, health camps for soldiers' sons, and literary and art competitions for returned convalescents. In 1946 she became lady superintendent of the Ford Millton Memorial Home for Children near Rangiora, which had been bequeathed to the league. She hoped to run year-round health camps there, but could not get enough staff or resources. She held a number of camps, but became increasingly exhausted by the work and alienated from league members who had a different agenda for the property. Bitterness set in when she was not consulted about plans in which she felt 'all the old ideals and principles are set aside', and in January 1951 she retired to Kaikoura.
Wilding was made an MBE in 1952. The remainder of her life was dedicated to painting and to working for peace. She founded the Kaikoura Art Group and was involved in mural painting. (She had published a booklet, Murals for New Zealanders, in 1946.) She remained patron of the Youth Hostels Association until 1960, believing it helped promote goodwill and tolerance, and represented New Zealand at its first Asia–Pacific conference in Japan in 1958. She participated in the opening of what is now the Cora Wilding Youth Hostel in Christchurch in 1966, and received the association's Richard Schirrmann Medal in 1976. A school painting cup competition, which she instituted in the 1940s, was later extended to include children in Japan. Her private collection of paintings was sold in 1971 for the benefit of Te Wai Pounamu Maori Girls' College. She opposed rugby tours to South Africa and the Vietnam War, and sold flowers and paintings to raise money for Vietnamese children, Hong Kong refugees, Maori educational groups, the University of the South Pacific, the Cobham Outward Bound School and the Red Cross.
Cora Wilding never married. She died in Kaikoura on 8 October 1982, aged 93. She always felt she had received so much from life that it behoved her to put something back. Sometimes her temperament and iron will caused difficulties, but her generosity, sincerity, warmth and charm, bolstered by her social position, enabled her to create what she believed was a healthier, better and happier New Zealand.