Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

The island of second chances

Trevor Williams is a long-term resident and former patient. Photo / Richard Robinson
Trevor Williams is a long-term resident and former patient. Photo / Richard Robinson

Trevor Williams' story is one of survival against the odds; he is a living treasure of Rotoroa Island.

Twenty five years ago he persuaded a judge in the holding cells at Auckland Police Station that drinking a 40oz bottle of gin and up to 24 cans of beer a day qualified him to be committed back to Rotoroa Island a second time.

Williams had been picked up the night before in Queen St on a drunk and disorderly charge on his first day back from the island.

Twenty five years later, the ageing tattoos on Trevor's tanned arms and hands are the only physical clues left of a hopeless alcoholic, a 62-year-old former cabinetmaker from the once dry suburb of Mt Roskill.

"There is no way I would be here today if I was still drinking," says Williams, who is a jack of all trades and just one of two permanent residents on the island.

The island's other resident is Philip Salisbury, a Salvation Army worker, who like Trevor, now works for the Rotoroa Island Trust.

He lives on the island with his young family.

Williams credits the Salvation Army for "showing me you can live a life without alcohol", although it took several years and a lot of faith in God to overcome his addiction.

The environment helped. The dormitories were small and inmates had to work, but there were also fishing trips to Great Barrier Island, visits to the Stony Batter tunnels at nearby Waiheke Island and softball, cricket and concerts on the flat lawn at Home Bay.

Williams' working life has been spent on the Salvation Army boat that brought inmates to and from the island, operating the sewage plant, learning plumbing and other skills. He knows all there is to know about how Rotoroa ticks.

Williams was one of 12,000 inmates admitted to Rotoroa Island between the time it opened in 1911 as a "certified inebriates' home" and 2005 when it closed.

The Salvation Army opened a home on nearby Pakatoa Island in 1908 to deal with public drunkards under the Inebriates Institutions Act of 1898 and the Habitual Drunkards Act of 1906. A month after it opened, the Governor General visited and requested something larger.

The first inmate at Rotoroa was from Invercargill and the accommodation for 100 men was a mix of farm colony, retreat and prison. Pakatoa became a home for women until 1934 when it was used to house elderly alcoholics before its sale in 1949.

In 1960, a visiting magistrate said: "There'll always be a need for a place like Rotoroa Island."

Rotoroa was originally known as Motu Te Rotoroa - the long setting sun - named after a celebrated battle between Ngati Paoa of Waiheke, and Ngati Haku of Coromandel.

Along with other islands off the east coast of Waiheke, it was bought in 1826 by Captain James Herd from nine chiefs for the sum of one double-barrelled gun, eight muskets and a barrel of gunpowder.

It was farmed in the 1860s and several sales later, retired sea captain William Ruthe bought the island in 1886 and created a tourist, holiday and health resort.

- NZ Herald

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