Arthur Stace was one of Australia’s earliest graffiti artists. He wrote the word Eternity in beautiful copperplate script over the streets of Sydney more than half a million times over a span of 35 years. Before that, he was a homeless Aussie battler, a drunk and a criminal.
On 6 Aug 1930, at the age of 45, Arthur gave his life to the Lord after hearing a sermon by Reverend Hammond, the Anglican Minister at St Barney’s on Broadway. A few years later, on 14 Nov 1932, after hearing Reverend John Ridley’s sermon Echoes of Eternity, Arthur began to evangelise secretly by writing the word Eternity on the streets of Sydney. He wrote Eternity over a hundred times a day. It was not long before people began wondering who was writing this word and why. So began the legend of the mysterious Mr Eternity.
Richard Attieh, director and executive producer with the Australian Television and Media Group, joined Neil Johnson on 20Twenty to talk about his new film, Written in Chalk: The Echo of Arthur Stace.
On New Year’s Eve of 1999/2000, you may recall seeing the word Eternity emblazoned across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Arthur’s copperplate script. Who would have thought this word, written by a humble Christian man, would get such international exposure ninety years after he started his mission?
A Miserable Life
Arthur Stace was born in 1885 to alcoholic parents in an underprivileged home. Arthur and his siblings had to steal food to survive. When Arthur was seven, his father abandoned the family, which was a criminal offence in those days. His mother was evicted from their slum and had no option but to foster out her children. Arthur was sent to a home in Goulburn for the next seven years. It’s believed Arthur learnt to read and write in beautiful copperplate script during his time at Goulburn Public School. At fourteen, he began work in the coal mines, and by his early twenties, he was an alcoholic and a drifter. He returned to Sydney to work at his sister’s brothel, delivering alcohol, and hung around with unsavoury characters.
From Miserable to Traumatised
When World War One broke out, Arthur joined the Army for one main reason. It assured him of food, clothing and a wage. He thought going to war and risking his life was better than living from bottle to bottle and prison cell to prison cell, doing whatever it took to get by.
Arthur was a stretcher bearer in the Army, moving wounded or dead bodies around while dodging bullets. He began to suffer recurring bouts of bronchitis and pleurisy. In 1919, he was given a medical discharge, returning to Australia shell-shocked and a completely broken man.
‘You could only imagine some of the things he saw,’ said Richard. ‘When he comes home, he goes back to the bottle and living in the gutter or a prison cell, doing whatever he could to get by.’
The difference this time was that he was given a military pension, which unfortunately meant he had a regular supply of alcohol to drown his sorrows.
Arthur’s Amazing Grace Conversion
On 30 June 1930, Arthur and his destitute mates noticed a large sign outside St Barnabas Church. It promised a cup of tea and a rock cake after hearing Reverend Hammond’s Wednesday night sermon that was part of his Men’s Outreach mission for the unemployed, alcoholics, or homeless men living on the streets in Sydney.
‘So, Arthur Stace and his mates stumble into the church on a cold winter’s night. They were freezing, so the offer of a warm cup of tea and a rock cake in exchange for listening to a preacher for half an hour seemed like a good deal,’ said Richard.
Reverend Hammond’s sermon convicted Arthur. He left the men’s meeting, and as he made his way across to Sydney University, he stopped under a big Morton Bay fig tree, fell to his knees and asked Christ into his life. From that moment, Arthur’s life was transformed, and he never picked up the bottle ever again.
The Birth of Mr Eternity
A few years later, on 14 Nov 1932, Arthur attended a seven-day outreach where Baptist preacher John Ridley preached his sermon, The Echoes of Eternity, at the Burton Street Baptist Tabernacle, known today as the Eternity Playhouse Theatre.
John Ridley said in his sermon, ‘I wish I could echo eternity across the city.’ Arthur took that as a literal challenge and went on to write Eternity on the streets of Sydney, Paramatta and Liverpool more than 500,000 times over the next 35 years from 1932 to 1967, the year he passed away. He would get up around 4 am every morning so as not to be seen and wrote Eternity at least a hundred times a day.
Arthur Stace did not want the attention on himself. He wanted people to think about Eternity and to divert their attention to God. The mystery of who was writing Eternity became legendary by the 1940s when it got the media’s attention. People wanted to know who was writing it and why they were writing it. Was it one person or a group? People started claiming to be the Eternity scribe. They would have to write the word Eternity next to one Arthur had written to prove it was them. They were caught out as frauds when the writing didn’t match Arthur’s copperplate script. This is the sort of impact Arthur had with just one word.
The Mystery of Mr Eternity Revealed
In 1942, at the age of 57, Arthur married the love of his life, Ellen Esther Pearl Dawson, known as Pearl. She was the only person who knew who Mr Eternity was and kept his secret.
‘It wasn’t until 1956 that the Arthur Stace identity was discovered. But in that time, the word had been stitched into the fabric of our city,’ said Richard.
After 27 years, the mystery was revealed when at an open-air meeting, Reverend Lisle M Thompson caught Arthur writing Eternity on the footpath. Reverend Thompson says, ‘Arthur, are you Mr Eternity?’ to which Arthur replied, ‘Guilty, your Honour. But you won’t tell anyone, will you?’
‘Reverend Thompson was acutely aware that when the story got out, it was going to be a massive story and wonderful for Christian evangelism. However, Arthur Stace felt that his role was not to be the front person of the story, but let the message tell itself,’ said Richard.
The news eventually reached the media, and the mystery of who was writing Eternity in such beautiful lettering was resolved, and it became a significant news story. Arthur went from somebody who didn’t want his identity to be known to somebody who became a celebrity almost overnight.
Arthur Stace passed away on 30 Jul 1967, at the age of 82, and was buried alongside his wife, Pearl, at Botany Cemetery in the Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park.
Those who would like to host a screening of Written in Chalk or who are looking for resources such as an education study guide, church or community resource kit, audio interviews, or eternity stories can visit the website Written in Chalk.
This article was inspired by Neil’s interview with Richard. Please feel free to share.
To listen to Richard’s full interview, click on the link below:
Roy William’s book, Mr Eternity.
Mr Eternity: The Arthur Stace Story – #mreternity – Bible Society Australia
Stream episode Episode 23 – Eternity by Signs of the Times Radio podcast | Listen online for free on SoundCloud