Arthur Malcolm Stace (1885-1967) is one of the more remarkable men in the rich tapestry that makes up the story of City of Sydney. He was a down and out drunk – a methylated spirits drinker who was destitute, roaming the streets of 1920’s Sydney with no fixed place of abode. His eventual recovery and conversion to Christianity makes for a fascinating story.
Arthur Stace had the odds well and truly stacked against him from the beginning being born into an alcoholic family, and as a boy forced to steal and eat food scraps from garbage bins to survive. He became a ward of the state, an alcoholic and was then sent to gaol at 15 years of age. In 1916 he enlisted as a soldier in the First World War, but following his discharge in 1919 returned to his alcoholic ways around the streets of Sydney.
He became totally destitute, a perambulating drunk who would attend the occasional church service, mostly to get the free meal put on by the church afterwards. But a major change occurred one evening in 1932 when he heard a sermon by the evangelist John Ridley who spoke about eternity to his congregation. Ridley challenged “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?”
At that point Stace claimed that he received a “powerful calling from the Lord”, to take that message of eternity out onto the streets of Sydney – not by shouting it, as Ridley had asked – but by writing it. And from that point on he put the bottle down and became sober.
For the next 35 years he would arise early and visit various locations around the city, writing in chalk the word “Eternity” in an immaculate copperplate style. He wrote on footpaths, seats, billboards and doorways – in fact any flat, smooth surface that would take chalk.
Because he believed that he was doing the work of the Lord, he dressed only in his best outfits for these expeditions – usually a threadbare suit, battered felt hat, collar and tie – a diminutive shadowy figure moving around in the early morning light of Sydney.
The regular appearance of this graffiti all around town aroused immense curiosity amongst Sydneysiders- who was writing this and what did it mean? Then one day the mystery was solved. Stace was seen by the Reverend Lisle Thomson writing the word on a footpath and notified a newspaper reporter. His story eventually appeared in the Sydney Sunday telegraph in June 1956 – to the delight of the Sydney public. Stace, then dubbed “Mr. Eternity” eventually died in 1967 aged 82.
It is estimated that he wrote “Eternity” more than 500,000 times in his career, and his incredible work was celebrated early on New Year’s Day in 2000 when the word “Eternity” appeared in a firework display on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Image: An aluminium replica of Stace’s “Eternity”, located at Town Hall Square in Sydney. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.