In 1932, a single word made its first appearance on Sydney’s streets.
That word – eternity – and the man who wrote it would become part of the story of the city itself.
Born in Redfern in 1885, Arthur Stace was the fifth child of alcoholic parents. The family lived in such poverty that the young Arthur stole bread and milk from neighbours’ doorsteps to survive.
With little formal education, Stace entered foster care at seven and was a heavy drinker by fourteen. He ricocheted through a series of jobs, including two years at the coal mines on the south coast and a stint with Sydney City Council.
He then worked for various underworld organisations and eventually turned to theft.
Service in World War I
In March 1916, Arthur enlisted in the army and served in France with the 19th Battalion.
Returning to Australia in February 1919, he was discharged from the army as medically unfit. He found himself out of work, and began drinking again.
Depression and frequent court appearances dogged him for years. But in August 1930 his life began to change. Stace attended a “tea and rock bun” meeting at St Barnabas on Broadway. There, he underwent a conversion – he became a Christian, gave up drinking and took to preaching on street corners.
But his real calling was yet to come.
An epiphany in a Darlinghurst church
It was in Darlinghurst that a pivotal moment in Stace’s life occurred.
In the early 1930s he took a cleaning job at the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle, where he also joined the congregation. In 1932 he attended a sermon at the church by John G. Ridley, a well-known evangelist of the time.
Ridley’s sermon struck a chord with Stace. “Eternity, eternity, I wish I could sound or shout eternity through the streets of Sydney … Where will you spend eternity?”
Stace felt compelled to change his life. “Eternity went ringing through my brain,” he later said in an interview, “and suddenly I began crying and felt a powerful call from the Lord to write ‘Eternity’.” Finding a piece of chalk in his pocket, Stace left the church and wrote his very first “Eternity” on the Darlinghurst pavement.
A Sydney mystery
From then on Stace rose before dawn every day and headed out to scrawl his message in secret. Between 1932 and 1966, he would write the word “Eternity” in his beautiful copperplate more than half a million times, from Cronulla to Cremorne, from Parramatta to Pyrmont.
For many years, no one knew who was leaving these messages. The mystery grabbed the city’s attention, with the culprit simply known as “Mr Eternity”.
Newspapers speculated. Due to the elegance of his handwriting, The Sun suspected Mr Eternity could be a former teacher. Smith’s Weekly, meanwhile, quipped, “It might be Mr Chifley [then prime minister], creeping through the night and surreptitiously informing us how long he intends income tax to remain a high level”.
The mystery was finally uncovered in 1956. Still a member of the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle, Arthur was adding yet another “Eternity” to a footpath near the church, when the church’s minister caught him in the act. When asked if he was indeed Mr Eternity, Stace simply replied, “Guilty your honour.”
The legacy lives on
Arthur Stace died on 30 July 1967 and was interred at Botany Cemetery. But his influence lived on.
The Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle closed its doors in 1996. However, the building was later given a full makeover and opened in 2013 as a theatre. And its name? The Eternity Playhouse.
There is rumoured to be just one eternity chalked in his original handwriting, inside a bell from the Sydney GPO, but how it got there is a complete mystery.
The cemetery where Arthur is buried also houses a touching tribute: a bronze statue of Arthur bent towards the pavement, inscribing “Eternity” with his trademark yellow chalk. And at the fountain at Town Hall Square, a single word is embedded into the footpath that recalls a man and his quest: eternity.
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Photo credits: Photo from Wikipedia