Mr.Eternity – The Sydney Legend

The legacy of Mr.Eternity – the Sydney legend
It was New Year Eve, at the dawn of the new millennium and the eyes of the world were on Sydney. January 1, 2000 and 2 billion people from around the world watch transfixed as the city, that was soon to host the Olympic games, ushered in the new millennium. Sydney celebrated this momentous occasion long before any of the other great cities of Asia, Africa, Europe or the Americas and it did so in the midst of the ‘Y2K’ computer bug fear. Sydney put on a display of fireworks that night like never before.

The world marveled at the mesmerising sight of our southern skies ablaze with colour with an exploding harbor bridge engulfed in a spectacular fireball … but 30 minutes later, it ended. The smoke cleared, and through the haze, the distinctive illuminated copper-plate lettering style of the word Eternity appeared, right there, in 18m high letters on our national icon. The Sydney crowd, realizing its significance, cheered in delight as the rest of the world looked on rather perplexed and still rather bewildered.

Now for those that did not understand the significance of those NYE millennium celebrations in 2000 … here is the story of Mr.Eternity – the Sydney Legend.

Mr.Eternity – A new millennium

Eternity NYE Millennium Sydney
When asked why he chose to emblazon the word Eternity across the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the dawn of the new millennium, with 2 billion people from around the world watching, the director of the celebrations Ignatius Jones, said:

”It’s incredibly Sydney. It symbolised for me the madness, mystery and magic of the city.”

Sydney? The city whose secular, fun loving and capitalist way of life looks back more to its roots as a penal colony than it does looking forward to anything more than a night of merry celebration. What has Sydney got to do with Eternity? … and yet, the million or so Sydney-siders who lined the foreshore that night in 2000, just stood and applauded as one. They identified with the significance of the message illuminated there, even if the rest of the world didn’t quite get it.

It’s so typically Australian to be in rapture about a symbol or event that the rest of the world just don’t quite understand. A bit like the Melbourne Cup (the ‘horse race that stops a nation‘), or like the bush ranger  Ned Kelly now idolized as a national hero, or the vagabond swag-man who takes pride of place as the central character in our national song ‘Waltzing Matilda’.
The story of Mr.Eternity is just another chapter in what uniquely defines Australians as a people. We just can’t help it. It is in our genes … that natural support for the underdog, that absolute admiration of the ‘Aussie battler’ just having-a-go and the deep honor specially reserved for those who never let life’s circumstances defeat them, regardless of the hand they are dealt. The story of Mr.Eternity is all this and more, for Australians also have a soft spot for the non-conformist and the anti-hero as the story below reveals.   
So what is the significance of Mr.Eternity – The Sydney Legend? Well, some will say that it’s the challenge contained in the religious message embodied in that one word. Perhaps, but I don’t think those revelers on New Years Eve were thinking about any other spirit that night than the one that was swirling around in their glasses. Sure, there is a religious undertone to the word and to the story, but that is not what binds this particular copper-plate lettering style of the word Eternity so closely to the hearts of the average Sydney-sider. 

The Mr.Eternity phenomenon

The copperplate Eternity –

See, for over twenty five years, from 1930 to 1956, Sydney-siders woke each day to a city that had already been visited by a phantom of the night. A phantom that was to become the most famous graffiti artist in Australia’s history. For there on the footpaths, on the train station platforms and on the many walkways that linked the city’s building was that one word Eternity, etched so beatifically with yellow crayon in the fine copperplate lettering style. 

Where it came from, how it got there, what it meant and who was behind this phenomenon was a mystery to all. The mystery turned to fascination and eventually obsession. For decades leading newspapers and letters to the editor debated who or what was behind the mysterious appearance of the word Eternity each morning. It was an enigma, a one-word sermon that had Sydney columnists speculating often about the author. But in spite of the intense interest, the author remained a phantom for those 25 years.
Arthur Stace – Mr Eternity (One of only 4 photos)

Still without answers, the people of Sydney eventually accepted this phenomenon as just another special part of their unique city landscape. In a way, it comforted them as each day they stepped around and over another freshly crafted rendition of the word. Even street sweepers and cleaners would leave the original and elegant works untouched. 

In time that word Eternity was to it earn its right to belong. For while the world defined Sydney by its postcard features, the people of Sydney identified with the simple certainties like that word Eternity being ever before them as they went about their daily lives. In the course of the Eternity phenomenon, it is estimated that this sermon in a word was written on the streets of Sydney some 500,000 times, causing some to humorously tag the author as one of Australian’s most prolific writers.
Eventually in 1956 the mystery was solved. It happened when the religious minister of Burton Street Baptist Church, the Rev. Lisle M. Thompson, witnessed the church cleaner writing the word Eternity on the footpath. The cleaner did not realize that he had been spotted but when asked by the Rev. Thompson “Are you Mr. Eternity?” the cleaner replied, “Guilty, your honour.” 
Soon after that encounter on the 21 June 1956, journalist Tom Farrell published an interview with the cleaner in the Sunday Telegraph and the mystery that had baffled Sydney for over 25 years was finally revealed. The cleaner’s name was Arthur Malcolm Stace.

The background of the man behind Eternity

Arthur Stace ‘Eternity’ –
Now as the story unfolded it became apparent that Arthur Stace’s childhood and development to manhood was one that was completely devoid of opportunity or privilege.
Arthur was born on 9 February 1885 at Redfern, Sydney, fifth child of William Wood Stace, a labourer from Mauritius, and his native-born wife Laura, née Lewis. 
He grew up in the then slums of Balmain, a central-west suburb of  Sydney. His parents were alcoholics and his sisters operated a brothel. He would frequently sleep on hessian bags under the house just to escape the wrath of a violent, drunken father. He revealed in his interview with Tom Farrell, that both his parents and five siblings had all eventually died as drunkards and derelicts.
Deprived and growing up in the slums of Sydney and having to survive by his wits and without parental support, Arthur was forced into a life of stealing. His unsupervised living and countless brushes with the law saw him eventually made a ward of the state at the age of 12. He was to receive only a limited education and by the age of 15 was sent to jail.
In his twenties Arthur moved to Riley Street in the inner southern suburb of Surry Hills. He found work running liquor between pubs and brothels, he was connected with gambling dens who used him as a cockatoo (a posted lookout) for a two-up school, and until the start of World War One he was slowly sliding down into an inevitable life of alcoholism. 
World War 1 was seen by Arthur as an opportunity for his much craved security and self-respect. In 1915 he joined a volunteer rifle unit and then enlisted with the 19th Battalion on March 18, 1916. The horrific death toll at Gallipoli and the plummeting recruitment for the only volunteer army of World War 1, saw Arthur accepted into the Australian Army in spite of his 5’3” (160 centimetres) and his rather dubious criminal record. (Which he did not reveal on the application). On the application, he also changed his age (26 instead of 32) and place of birth (Kogarah instead of Balmain) to try and cover up his past.

Arthur Malcolm Stace – Govt. War Records

Arthur Stace served in France as a stretcher bearer, and would have witnessed the most appalling scenes while having to recover the shattered bodies of his mates. The war historian Charles Bean wrote: ”You won’t find our stretcher bearers of 1914-18 among the Victoria Cross winners … but I think that, on the whole, the stretcher bearers won the award they would most have coveted – the highest place in the estimate of all their comrades.” 

Private Stace fell seriously ill with pleurisy while in France, in mid April 1917, and was wounded and partially blinded in one eye when a mustard gas-filled shell exploded beside him. He was sent to England, where he spent the rest of the war recuperating. 
He returned to Australia in February 1919 and was discharged medically unfit due to his weakened chest and the condition known as ”disordered action of the heart”, a military euphemism for shellshock. 
Back in Sydney, Stace’s physical and psychological problems were exacerbated by alcohol and he often found himself in front of the magistrate. From then until the middle of the Great Depression he slid further down into alcoholism, to the point that he was drinking methylated spirits (only sixpence a bottle), and living mostly on handouts.

Eternity begins

St. Barnabas Church – Eternity
One day, Arthur bumped into a mob of men moving along Broadway on their way to a ‘free feed’ at St. Barnabas Church. 
With Sydney being in the midst of the depression, and food being a difficult commodity to procure for the alcoholic Arthur, he decided to join in with the throng. The date was August 6th 1930.
The 250 ‘needy men’ that gathered at the church that day had to firstly listen to a sermon from the Rector, Archdeacon R.B.S. Hammond, before they were given any free food.
Arthur recalls the six smartly presented people at the front of the church who were in stark contrast to the assembled and hungry crowd of ‘needy men’.  
Stace said to the man sitting next to him: “Who are they?” 
“I’d reckon they’d be Christians”, the man replied.

Stace said: “Well look at them and look at us. I’m having a go at what they have got.”
Arthur Stace left that church a changed man. Over the next few weeks, he found that he was able to give up alcohol and he said: “As I got back my self respect, people were more decent to me”. His new approach to life saw him working again with regular employment.

Rev John Ridley Image #7

On the 14 November 1932 he went to listen to a noted “give-’em-Hell” preacher, the Rev. John Ridley in the Burton Street Baptist Church in Darlinghurst. Significantly, Ridley was not only a religious man but was also a decorated WWI veteran. He had been awarded the Military Cross for valour during the Battle of Bullecourt in 1917. When Ridley declared: ”I wish I could shout ‘Eternity’ through the streets of Sydney,” the word resonated with Stace who, like Ridley, had faced his own mortality daily on the battle fields of France.

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 to write “ETERNITY”. I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and I bent down there and wrote it.”

Listen to Arthur speak HERE.

Such was to be his practice and commitment for the next 33 years of his life. As Arthur himself said “I’ve been writing it at least 50 times a day ever since.”

In the early days, some tried to erase the word from the pavement, and one man even followed Arthur placing the letter ‘m’ before eternity making it “meternity”. It was then that Arthur increased the size of the first letter and adopted the Copperplate style, as he said, “I tricked the bloke and made it a great big “ E”.

The Eternity ritual

On 22 January 1942 Arthur married Ellen Esther (‘Pearl’) Dawson, at St Barnabas’s Anglican Church, Sydney, and described himself as a ‘missioner’.
Arthur lived with Pearl, in Bulwarra Road, Pyrmont. His daily routine for over 35 years was to rise at about 4:00am, pray for an hour and have breakfast. He would then set out for the inner-city suburb he had in mind or had felt led to and arrived there before dawn. His typical targets included the suburbs of Wynyard, Glebe, Paddington, Randwick and Central Station.
Arthur was a little man being only 5’3″ (1.6m) tall and a mere 7 stone (44 Kilo). He was bent over, grey haired and looked frail enough to be blown away in a stiff breeze. But he always dressed smartly in a grey felt hat, tie and a double-breasted navy blue suit. (He remembered the ‘look’ of those Christians at St. Barnabas Church)
As he walked every so often he would stop, pull out a yellow crayon, bend down and write on the pavement in large, elegant copperplate – the word Eternity. He would move on a hundred meters or so and write it again, Eternity, nothing more, just one simple word. His one-word message could weather three to six months; one in Surry Hills, he was told, lasted twelve.
In the dawn light he would often be seen around Wynyard Station where the drunks and homeless found overnight shelter. He would nod to those still there on the pavement, under park benches and huddled in shop doorways, trying to keep warm under their gathered newspapers. If he detected any movement, there would be a ready pat on the head or a warm greeting of encouragement. He was a man who completely understood their plight. 

There was the occasional moments when he would be apprehended by police. “Twenty three times”, Arthur said, “I have been questioned (by the police) but I’ve never been arrested . . . the police have been very good to me. I know there’s a rule about defacing the footpaths, but I’ve got authority from a higher Source.” was his defence.
He placed his message where it would be most prominent, then headed back home at around 10am. 
After lunch he would set out again to do a round of good works at the missions and rescue societies. He helped down-and-out men at R. B. S. Hammond’s hostel, led open-air meetings in the city, and visited the Francis Street Methodist hostel, Callan Park mental hospital and the Lazaret. Saturday nights would see him with a loudspeaker on a makeshift podium outside Sydney Town Hall preaching to the derelicts and the down-and-outs.

The Mr.Eternity legacy

Front Page – SMH – 1 August 1967 

Pearl died in 1961 and in 1965 Stace moved from Pyrmont into the Hammondville nursing homes. He died there aged 83 on 30 July 1967, having bequeathed his body to medical science through the Sydney University because he did not want to waste his money that was to be given to Baptist missions, on an expensive funeral.  His remains were later interred at Botany cemetery some two years later. 

Soon after his death, there were vigorous exchanges in the papers and in the Sydney City Council meetings about how best to remember Mr.Eternity. Some suggested that a statue of him kneeling on the ground, writing, be erected in Railway Square. The Sydney Lord Mayor David Griffin tried to perpetuate this ‘delicious piece of eccentricity,’ by installing permanent plaques in numerous locations throughout the city in Arthur’s memory.
Sadly, a team of City Commissioners killed the idea, dismissing it at the time as all too trivial. They got it so wrong! In 2001 this same council was to register Arthur’s Eternity as a council trademark ® because of its ‘iconic value … to the people of Sydney’. They eventually got it!
Today, there are only three public places left in Sydney where you can still see Arthur’s Stace’s Eternity. 

⇒ (1) You can still see a faded version inside the largest bell at the old Sydney Post Office on Martin Place. Written in about 1963, the ‘i’ has almost vanished, but the word ‘Eternity’ can still be seen.
⇒ (2) It was memorialized by Architect Ridley Smith in the re-design of Sydney Square beside the Sydney Town Hall. When it was unveiled at the foot of the Wall-of-Water feature on the 13 July 1977, The Sydney Morning Herald published: “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.” Interestingly Ridley Smith was the son of missionary parents serving with the China Inland Mission. His father named his son Ridley because of his great respect for evangelist John Ridley, the very preacher whose words turned Arthur Stace into Mr. Eternity
Arthur Stace grave –

⇒ (3) At the foot of his grave in the Botany Cemetery is his trademark etching in marble of his own special version of Eternity.

This ‘birdlike little man with wispy white hair’, Stace has become known as ‘the Eternity Man’, and is enshrined as one of the characters of Sydney.
Others have taken Arthur’s Eternity and given it new life. For example:
The State Library of New South Wales hosted an exhibition honoring the lives of Sydney’s most notable eccentrics. Arthur Stace was prominent in the introduction. Arthur earned his place there, not for his outstanding gift but rather for his 37 years of dedication to a simple singular cause. He was the ordinary man who had been dealt a debilitating hand yet he was still able to make something of his life and play a part in the life and conscience of a great international city.
Eternity – Martin Sharp –

Arthur’s life also inspired the Eternity gallery at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, which seeks to provide an insight into the nation through the lives and emotions of its people. Stace’s scarifying experiences in war and economic depression followed by the solace of his religious faith embodies the gallery’s 10 themes: joy, hope, passion, mystery, thrill, loneliness, fear, devotion, separation and chance.

The Sydney NYE Millenium celebrations gave Arthur’s Eternity its greatest exposure. Ignatius Jones was the producer of the event in Sydney. He said that he had chosen to honour Arthur’s legacy as a fitting way to mark the new era:

“It’s incredibly Sydney. It symbolized for me the madness, mystery and magic of the city. On the one hand there’s the meaning of the word in its temporal sense – and on this night of fellowship and good cheer, it shouldn’t just be about one night. The word says that this celebration should be eternal in human life. But it also says a lot about Sydney that Arthur Stace, who grew up in a brothel, came back from war shell-shocked and became an habitual criminal and an alcoholic, should be able to reinvent himself and try to bring joy and meaning into people’s lives. This is a quintessentially Sydney message and one we want to spread.” 

The same Ignatius Jones was responsible for the word appearing during the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics in a “New Era and Eternity” segment. The segment ends with a mock up Sydney Harbour Bridge with “Eternity” shining through the fire-like sparkles and smoke.
Eternity T-Shirt Remo

Martin Sharp, an artist who has designed many famous posters and record covers, has a long-standing interest in Arthur Stace. Martin has said that he ‘loved the idea of that the vastest of words which had been written so humbly and so often on the pavements of Sydney, …was to be honored in the 2001 Federation tapestry’. 

Martin’s contribution to the 2001 Federation tapestry with the central theme of Eternity is on display at the Museum of Victoria. Thanks to Sharp’s thirty-year Eternity industry, what was originally a religious message has today become a product of popular culture and an icon of Sydney, Australia. 
Eternity by Martin Sharp –
The Eternity Man

In 1994, a well-received documentary ‘The Eternity Man’ was shot, which interviewed those who had known Arthur Stace, and featuring dark, atmospheric scenes of a man, by night, combing the streets of Sydney, writing Eternity on the pavements.

The Eternity Man was also depicted as an opera boasting music by Jonathan Mills (the composer who is also director of the Edinburgh Festival) and the words by late poet Dorothy Porter. The stage version premiered at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2003 before playing at the 2005 Sydney Festival.
Other places where it has appeared is as a framed ETERNITY sign that adorns a wall of the theaterette in Sydney’s Parliament House.  It also appeared as an icon in the movie ‘Babe, Pig in the City’. It was further celebrated by the Sydney City Council in 1997 on the 40th anniversary of Arthur’s death with a city full of Eternity flags draping from the light poles. 
Eternity flags Sydney 1997 –

Eternity forever

Arthur Stace – Eternity

More than forty years after his death, Mr. Eternity continues to inhabit the city’s consciousness. Arthur’s ‘one word sermon’ has become an integral part of the soulful fabric of Sydney and Australians have taken him and his story to their hearts. 

Arthur’s story, is Australia’s story. It’s about the ‘Aussie battler’ and the love we Aussies have for the underdogs who faces their challenges and overcomes. Life so cruelly stacked the cards so heavily against Arthur, but in true Aussie spirit he fights back and succeeds … not in any spectacular way, but succeeds in overcoming his demons that threatened to destroy his life and moved on. For Arthur this meant going from nothing to one step above nothing, yet that one step for him, was so monumental. In climbing from the ‘gutter to the footpath’, Arthur showed that success is more about degrees, than it is about the height of the position attained. 
Australian’s have come to deeply admire Arthur for his pluckiness in carrying out his work with such simple dedication for those 35 years. He worked with what he had, he accepted his limitations, he made the best of his talents and his opportunities … and he stayed true to his calling. That’s why we honor him and why we can identify with him so completely.
Click image for Arthur’s Song

It was Arthur’s complete ordinariness and his acceptance of that state that made him so extraordinary. He has won our hearts with his struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds. His simple message may yet achieve its own immortality, given the continual and growing interest in Arthur and his one word sermon – Eternity. 
Arthur Stace, the self declared ” petty criminal, bum, and metho drinker” has crossed over into revered Aussie folklore with his own special gift of Eternity to the people of Sydney. For all Australians, his life and legacy have shown how ordinary folk, fully committed and dedicated to their cause, however humble, can achieve extra-ordinary outcomes. 
Arthur Stace, Australia salutes you. RIP. 

One of only two original chalk drawings remaining, made from the hand of Arthur Stace.

About the author

My Australia Knols 

Peter Baskerville was born in Australia and has lived the vast majority of his life in the country of his birth apart from a few years in Fiji and New Zealand pursuing business interests. 

Despite imbibing the inherent non-nationalistic attitude that naturally comes with being an Aussie, we just can’t help loving this place called Australia – its vast open spaces, its pristine beaches, its unspoiled outback landscapes, its melting pot of immigrants, its ancient heritage of the First Australians, its Anzac spirit, it mateship creed, it hard working, positive yet carefree attitude to life … yes, and even its perils, dangers and strife – we love it all. It is a long way to come, but I’m sure you will find it well worth the visit, even better, come join us … the people of the land ‘down-under’.

Selected references

Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1958, 28 May 1959, 1, 5 Aug 1967, 23 Aug 1969, 13 July 1977, 12 July 1978; Herald (Melbourne), 10 July 1963, 16 June 1965.
Print Publication Details: Chris Cunneen, ‘Stace, Arthur Malcolm (1885 – 1967)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, Melbourne University Press, 1990, pp 42-43.


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