Sydney, Australia, celebrated the beginning of 2000 by displaying on the Harbour Bridge the word Eternity in the iconic copperplate handwriting of Arthur Stace.
He started early, usually before dawn, and he wandered through all the streets of Sydney. Every morning he was somewhere else, Wynyard, Glebe, Paddington, Randwick, Central Station. As he said – where God directed him. Every night the message appeared in his head. He was a very little man, bent, grey-haired, only five feet three inches tall and just seven stone. He looked frail enough to blow away. Then with the formality of another generation he always wore a grey felt hat, tie and prim double-breasted navy blue suit. Sometimes in the dawn light he would be seen around Wynyard Station. He would nod to the drunks still left on the pavement and he would look at the debris of the affluent society stretched out on the park benches, trying to keep warm under newspapers. If he detected any movement there would be a pat on the head or a warm greeting. He had the air of a man who understood.
As he walked every so often he would stop, pull out a crayon, bend down and write on the pavement in large, elegant copperplate – Eternity. He would move on a hundred yards then write it again, Eternity, nothing more, just one simple word. For thirty-seven years he chalked this one-word sermon and he wrote it more than half a million times.
He did not like publicity. He regarded his unique style of Evangelism as a serious mission, something between Arthur Stace and his Maker, so for a decade these Eternity signs mystified Sydney. They were an enigma. Sydney columnists wrote about it, speculated on the author, and several people walked into newspaper offices and announced that they were the author. The real man kept quiet.
The mystery all came clear in 1956 and the man who cracked it was the Reverend Lisle M Thompson of the Burton Street Baptist Church. Arthur Stace was actually the church cleaner and one of their prayer leaders. One day Lisle Thompson saw Stace take out his crayon and write the famous Eternity on the pavement. He did it without realising that he had been spotted. Thompson said: “Are you Mr Eternity?” and Stace replied “Guilty Your Honour”. Lisle Thompson wrote a tract telling the little man’s extraordinary story and Tom Farrell, later had the first interview. He published it in the Sunday Telegragh on 21 June 1956.
Arthur Stace was born in a Balmain slum in 1884. His father and mother were both drunkards. Two sisters and two brothers also were drunks and they lived much of their time in jail. The sisters ran brothels and one of them was ordered out of New South Wales three times. Stace used to sleep on bags under the house and when his parents were drunk he had to look after himself. He used to steal milk from the doorsteps, pick scraps of food out of garbage and shoplift cakes and sweets.
His schooling was practically non-existent; so much so that this was noticed by Government officials. At the age of twelve he became a state ward. Not that this helped him greatly. When he was fourteen he had his first job – in a coal mine – and his first pay cheque he spent in a hotel. Already he had learned to drink at home so like the rest of the family he became a perambulating drunk, living in a fog of alcohol. He went to jail for the first time when he was fifteen, then it became a regular affair.
He was in his twenties when he moved to the seedy inner suburb of Surry Hills. There his job was to carry liquor from the pubs to the brothels, and particularly his sister’s brothel. Then there were other jobs such as cockatoo at a two-up school, that is the character who gives warning of the approach of the police. He was mixed up with various housebreaking gangs and because of his size he was splendidly useful as a look out man (1).
During the first world war he enlisted in the 19th Battalion, went to France and returned home gassed and half blind in one eye. Back in Surry Hills he took up his old habits, drink in particular. He slipped from beer, to whisky, to gin, to rum, to cheap wine until finally living on hand-outs. All he could afford was metholated spirits at sixpence a bottle. His alcoholism was so extreme his mind began to go and he was in danger of becoming a permanent inmate of Callan Park Mental Asylum (2).
He told Tom Farrell that in 1930 he was in Central Court for the umpteenth time. The magistrate said to him: “Don’t you know that I have the POWER to put you in Long Bay jail or the POWER to set you free.”
“Yes Sir,” he replied, but it was the word POWER that he remembered. What he needed was the power to give up drink. He signed the Pledge but he had done that many times before. He went to Regent Street Police Station and pleaded with the Sergeant to lock him up. “Sergeant, put me away. I am no good and I haven’t been sober for eight years. Give me a chance and put me away.” The Sergeant said: “You stink of metho, get out!”
This was the depression time and a metho drinker, dirty, wretchedly dressed, had to be the least likely of any to get a job. Outside the Court House there was a group walking up Broadway. The word had got around that a cup of tea and something to eat was available at the Church Hall. In the nineteen thirties one would endure almost anything for free food.
The date was August 6th and it was a meeting for men conducted by Archdeacon R.B.S. Hammond of St Barnabas’ Church on Broadway. There were about 300 men present, mostly down and outs, but they had to endure an hour and half of talking before they received their tea and rock cakes. Up front there were six people on a separate seat, all looking very clean, spruce and nicely turned out, a remarkable contrast to the 300 grubby-looking males in the audience. Stace said to the man sitting next to him, a well-known criminal: “Who are they?” “I’d reckon they’d be Christians,” he replied. Stace said: “Well look at them and look at us. I’m having a go at what they have got,” and he slipped down on his knees and prayed.
After that, he did find it possible to give up drink and he said: “As I got back my self respect, people were more decent to me.” So he won a job on the dole, working on the sandmills at Maroubra one week on, one week off at three pounds a week.
Some months later in the Burton Street Baptist Church at Darlinghurst he heard the evangelist, the Reverend John Ridley. Ridley was a Military Cross winner from the World War One and a noted “give-‘em-Hell” preacher. He shouted: “I wish I could shout ETERNITY through the streets of Sydney.” (3) Stace, recalling the day, said: “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 there and wrote it. The funny thing is that before I wrote I could hardly have spelled my own name. I had no schooling and I couldn’t have spelt Eternity for hundred quid. But it came out smoothly in beautiful copperplate script. I couldn’t understand it and I still can’t.”
Stace claimed that normally his handwriting was appalling and his friends found it illegible. He demonstrated this to a Daily Telegraph reporter. He wrote Eternity which snaked across the pavement gracefully with rich curves and flourishes, but when he wrote his own name ‘Arthur’ it was almost unreadable. “I’ve tried and tried but Eternity is the only word that comes out in copperplate,” he said (4). After eight or nine years he did try something else “OBEY GOD”, and five years later, “GOD OR SIN” and “GOD 1st”, but finally he stuck with Eternity.
He had some problems. There was a fellow who followed him round and every time he wrote Eternity this other character changed it to Maternity. So he altered his style to give Eternity a large, eloquent capital E and maternity took a dive. The City Council had a rule against defacing the pavement and the police “very nearly arrested” him twenty-four times. “But I had permission from a higher source,” he said.
He lived with his wife Pearl in Bulwarra Road, Pyrmont and this was his routine. He rose at 4 am, prayed for an hour, had breakfast, then he set out. He claimed that God gave him his directions the night before, the name of the suburb came into his head and he arrived there before dawn. He took his message every 100 yards or so where it could be seen best then he was back home around 10am. First he wrote in yellow chalk, then he switched to marking crayon because it stayed on better in the wet. He did other things. On Saturday nights he led gospel meetings at the corner of Bathurst and George Streets. At first he did it from the gutter but in later years he had a fine van with electric lighting and an amplifier.
Aruther Stace died of a stroke in a nursing home on July 30, 1967 (5). He was 83. He left his body to Sydney University so that the proceeds could go to charity. The remains were finally buried at Botany Cemetery more than two years later (6).
There were suggestions that the city should put down a plaque to his memory. Leslie Jillet of Mosman said that there should be a statue in Railway Square depicting Stace kneeling chalk in hand (7).
In 1968 the Sydney City Council (8) decided to perpetuate Stace’s one-word sermon by putting down permanent plaques in “numerous” locations throughout the city. Sir David Griffin, a former Lord Mayor, tried to perpetuate what he called “a delicious piece of eccentricity”, but a team of City Commissioners killed the idea. They thought it was too trivial (9).
But finally Arthur Stace did get his plaque. It happened ten years after his death and was all due to Ridley Smith, architect of Sydney Square. He set the message Eternity in cast aluminium, set in aggregate, near the Sydney Square waterfall. The Sydney Morning Herald Column 8 said: “In letters almost 21cm (8in) high is the famous copperplate message Eternity. The one word sermon gleams in wrought aluminium. There’s no undue prominence. No garish presentation. Merely the simple Eternity on pebbles as Arthur Stace would have wanted it (10).
Ridley Smith did have an interest in Arthur Stace, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. As a boy he used to hear him preach on the corner of Bathurst Street. Even more interesting, Ridley Smith was named after the fire-breathing Reverend John Ridley, the very man who converted Arthur Stace back in 1930 (11).
(1) Sunday Telegraph, 21 June 1956.
(2) Reverend Lisle M. Thompson, The Crooked Made Straight.
(3) Daily Telegraph, 12 June 1965.
(5) Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1967.
(6) Daily Telegraph, 8 October 1969.
(7) Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1968.
(8) Daily Telegraph, 30 April 1968.
(9) Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 1976.
(10) Ibid, 12 July 1977.
(11) Ibid, 13 July 1977.
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