The recent Graffiti Wars posts prompted an email from Byter Dennis:
The Robbo Graffiti reminded me of the person who for years in the 1940-50’s chalked on the footpaths of Sydney, Australia, the single word “Eternity” in beautiful executed script. There was never anything else but the one word and no one knew who this person was or actually witnessed him chalking the paths. Sydney newspapers would undoubtedly have historic references and pictures of this graffiti, if you are interested.
I thought that I had already posted an item about Mr Eternity, as he came to be known, but a quick check showed that was not the case. His story is both fascinating and inspirational. On a personal note, I recall many times seeing the sign chalked on the ground on trips into the city with my parents when I was a nipper. Back then I didn’t have a clue what it meant, much less who had written it. I asked my parents what it meant and why it was written there and they didnt know. For a long time, no one did.
Mr Eternity became such a part of Sydney’s rich fabric of history that the word he chalked on the Sydney footpaths was used as the illuminated message on the Sydney Harbour Bridge arch for the new millenium fireworks:
Here is the story of it.
Mr Eternity was Arthur Stace, who was born in the Sydney inner city suburb of Balmain in 1884. Now an expensive, harbour suburb, in 1884 it comprised slums. Arthur grew up in those slums, neglected by his alcoholic parents and in extreme povert. He stole bread and milk and scrounged scraps out of garbage bins. By the age of 12 he was illiterate and a State ward.
As he entered his teenage years he was already an alcoholic and at age 15 was sentenced to a gaol term. Upon release he worked as a ‘cockatoo’, or lookout, at illegal gambling dens and in his twenties became a pimp for his sisters' brothels in Surry Hills, also an inner city suburb of Sydney.
In 1916, at the age of 26, Stace enlisted into to army for service in World War 1 but recurring bouts of bronchitis and pleurisy led to a medical discharge in 1919.
In 1930 he heard an inspirational sermon by Reverend Hammond whilst attending St Barnabas’ Church in Broadway for the free food provided. Sydneysiders will know St Barnabas as the church that engaged in sign wars with the publican of the Broadway Hotel across the road. They may also recall that the church burned down in 2006.
St Barnabas Church
Reverend Robert Hammond
The sermon inspired Stace to convert to Christianity. He abandoned crime and began living a life based on devotion and service. According to Stace “I went in to get a cup of tea and a rock cake but I met the Rock of Ages.”
For the next 20 years he led open air meetings on the corner of George and Bathurst streets.
Two years later, on 14 November 1932, Stace was in attendance at the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle in Darlinghurst, where he worked as a janitor, when he heard evangelist John G Ridley MC preach on “The Echoes of Eternity”.
Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle
John G Ridley
Ridley’s sermon was based on a verse from Isaiah 57:15:
"For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth Eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones."
At the end of his address Ridley put away his prepared notes and spoke loudly to the congregation:
"Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney. You've got to meet it, where will you spend Eternity?"
For Stace the experience was life changing.
In an interview in 1965 Stace described the effect upon him of Ridley’s words:
“John Ridley was a powerful preacher and he shouted, 'I wish I could shout Eternity through the streets of Sydney.' He repeated himself and kept shouting, 'Eternity, Eternity', and his words were ringing through my brain as I left the church.
Suddenly I began crying and I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write 'Eternity'. I had a piece of chalk in my pocket, and I bent down right there and wrote it. I've been writing it at least 50 times a day ever since, and that's 30 years ago ... I think Eternity gets the message across, makes people stop and think.…. The funny thing is that before I wrote it I could hardly write my own name. I had no schooling and I couldn’t have spelt Eternity for a hundred quid. But it came out smoothly, in a beautiful copperplate script. I couldn't understand it, and I still can't."
After eight or nine years he tried to write something else, "Obey God" and then five years later, "God or Sin", but he could not bring himself to stop writing "Eternity".
For the next 35 years, Stace left his wife Pearl (he had married in 1942) and their home in Pyrmont three to four times per week at 5.00am to travel into the city. There he chalked the word “Eternity” on footpaths, train station entrances and wharves. and anywhere else he was able.
It is estimated that he wrote the word around 500,000 times over those 35 years.
Millions saw the chalked, copperplate message from the anonymous mysterious writer, none knew his identity, few understood the meaning behind the message.
In 1956 Reverend Lisle Thompson, who preached at the Baptist Tabernacle, identified Stace as Mr Eternity when he saw Stace take a piece of chalk from his pocket and write the word on the footpath. Thompson wrote about Stace's life and an interview was published in the Sydney Sunday Telegraph on 21 June 1956.
This was the first time Sydneysiders knew the identity of the mysterious writer and the first time that an insight was given as to what the signs meant.
Stace continued writing for another 11 years.
Stopped by the police on 24 occasions for defacing the Council footpaths, he was able to avoid arrest by advising that he had permission from a higher source.
In 1963, photographer Trevor Dallen cornered Arthur and asked to take a few pictures of him writing his famous phrase. After four photos, Trevor ran out of film and asked for Stace to stay put while he got more film. Upon Trevor's return, Stace was gone.
Stace died of a stroke in a nursing home at the age of 83 on 30 July 1967. He bequeathed his body to the University of Sydney; subsequently, his remains were buried with those of his wife at Botany Cemetery.
The word Eternity in Stace’s copperplate hand is preserved and/or displayed at a number of places in Sydney:
- Inside the bell in the General Post Office clock tower which had been dismantled during World War II. When the clock tower was rebuilt in the 1960s, the bell was brought out of storage and as the workmen were installing it they noticed, inside, the word "Eternity" in Stace's chalk. This is the only surviving "Eternity" by Stace's own hand in Sydney. (No one ever found out how Stace had been able to get to the bell, which had been sealed).
- In Town Hall Square, between St Andrews Cathedral and Sydney Town Hall. When the area was redeveloped in the 1970s, a wrought aluminium replica of the word in Stace's original copperplate handwriting was embedded in the footpath near a fountain as an eternal memorial to Stace.
The National Museum in Canberra holds a rare 'Eternity' sign handwritten by Stace. It was written in chalk on cardboard for a friend at the Burton Street Tabernacle Baptist church. This object is the only other in existence in his own hand.
The sign was given by Stace to his friend Telma Dodds, also a parishioner at the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle. In 197-0 she gave the sign to Reverend Levit who preached at the church. He took the sign to Woy Woy when he retired and it was stuck to his back door until 2000.
The grave of Arthur and Pearl Stace at Botany Cemetery is unremarkable and undistinguishable from most of the other graves except for one thing. There is a plaque with a message at the foot: