Former Nelson author Tracey Ramsay with her book Orphanage Boys, which is set at a former Stoke Orphanage.

Book brings orphanage history to light

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The history of the Stoke Orphanage in Ngawhatu has been brought to life in a novel, written by ex-Nelson playwright and dramatist, Tracey Ramsay.

‘Orphanage Boys’ was released late last year, and was officially launched in Nelson last week.

It is the story of brothers Samuel and James Brodie who are taken to the Stoke Orphanage in 1897 by their father while he sought work on the West Coast.

They endure abuse and privation at the hands of the Marist Brothers, who ran the orphanage.

They manage to survive hunger and illness until fate divides them, but years later, during the turmoil and chaos of New Zealand’s Great Strike of 1913, they rediscover each other.

Also known as St Marys Boys Orphanage, it opened in 1886.

In March 1919 the orphanage closed, and was sold for use as the Ngawhatu Psychiatric Hospital in Stoke, which opened in 1922.

“The book is an historical fiction, based on some of the terrible things that happened in that place, in that community,” says Tracey.

“Terrible abuse happened to those boys, ignored until a report brought an end to the reign of the Marist Brothers.

“Life after that wasn’t a lot better, the boys still starved and were not cared for as well as they could and should have been, but at least the worst excesses were stopped.”

It is the first published book for Tracey, who goes by the name A.N. Arthur. She has been based in Wellington since 2013, but still calls Nelson home.

The book was a labour of love, taking her four years to write before it was published by Rangitawa Publishing.

And, the inspiration came from a personal connection.

“My ex-husband’s grandfather was an orphanage boy in New Zealand – not in the Stoke orphanage, but one in the Wellington region,” she says.

“I just started digging a wee bit and found out about that history – it’s fascinating where it takes you.

“And the other thing too, you know, as a country we have some of the worst child abuse statistics in the world – New Zealand has got a terrible undercurrent of abuse, and nothing is done about it.”

She is now working on her second book, ‘Soldier Boys’ which is due out at the end of the year.

“Soldier Boys follows on from Orphanage Boys – taking the main characters from it, starting just before the outbreak of WW1,” she says.

Orphanage Boys is available from online book shops, or Tracey says you can request it at local book shops.