*THIS ARTICLE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED, IN A SLIGHTLY SHORTER VERSION, IN THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD.
FROM THE BATTLEFIELD TO SAVING SOULS.
Much has been written about the mysterious ‘Mr Eternity’, Arthur Stace, who chalked his famous one word sermon throughout the streets of Sydney. Less well known is the fact that Stace served in France during World War I and that, as with so many veterans, the experience greatly affected the rest of his life. His service record offers valuable insights into his character, but also contains some intriguing contradictions.
A KEEN RECRUIT
Such was the patriotic rush to enlist in 1914 that the army could afford to set high standards. At 5’3” Arthur Stace was far too short, and his background was against him. Years later Stace would explain that he had grown up living by his wits in the slums of Sydney, stealing food to survive and rarely attending school . He admitted that by the age of fifteen he was a convicted thief and that when he did find work it was as a look-out for brothels and illegal gambling dens.
The army may not have wanted men like Arthur Stace, but it appears he craved the security and self-respect offered by fighting for his country. In 1915 he joined a volunteer rifle unit, no doubt hoping it would enhance his chances of acceptance. His opportunity came after the horrific death toll at Gallipoli began to change the way men felt about fighting so far from home. Recruitment plummeted, and the army was forced to reduce its height requirement. Similarly, background checks on recruits became less rigorous.
Stace enlisted with the 19th Battalion on March 18th. 1916. Oddly enough, he understated his age by five years (he was 31, not 26 as shown on his record ). Perhaps he was trying to hide his criminal record, as he gave his birthplace as Kogarah when it was actually Redfern, and stated that his postal address was simply care of the Haymarket Post Office. To the question, ‘Have you ever been convicted by the Civil Power?’ he answered ‘No’.
Following some training in the army as a side-drummer , he served on the battlefields of France as a stretcher bearer. In response to a query from a journalist many years later, an army official commented that drummers were often stretcher bearers, adding, ‘His (Stace’s) height would have made him a stretcher bearer rather than a rifleman. 5’ 3” was a bit short for the AIF.’
Private Stace fell seriously ill with pleurisy while in France, and was wounded when a gas filled shell exploded beside him. 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. It is worth remembering that stretcher bearers witnessed the most appalling scenes, often having to recover the shattered bodies of their mates. War historian Charles Bean once wrote; ‘You won’t find our stretcher-bearers of 1914-18 among the Victoria Cross winners…..but I think that, on the whole, the stretchers-bearers won the award they would most have coveted – the highest place in the estimate of all their comrades.’
Back in Sydney, Arthur’s physical and psychological problems were exacerbated by alcohol abuse. In 1930, when he was in danger of being convicted by the ‘Civil Power’ yet again, he realized it was the power to give up drink that he needed. Against all the odds, he would remain sober for the rest of his life, supported by a new found faith in God.
It was several months after his initial conversion that Stace heard evangelist John Ridley preaching in Darlinghurst . Significantly, Ridley was not only a man of God, but a decorated WW I veteran. He had been awarded the Military Cross in 1917. When the Rev. Ridley declared; ’ I wish I could shout ETERNITY through the streets of Sydney’ , the word resonated with Arthur, who, like John Ridley, had faced his own mortality on a daily basis in France. This was the genesis for his extraordinary thirty five year mission, in which he rose at dawn to walk the streets, anonymously chalking ETERNITY as he went.
When Stace was eventually ‘caught in the act’ and asked, ‘Are you Mr Eternity?’ he gave a backward glance to his many court appearances and replied ‘Guilty, your honour’. Subsequently he gave an interview to a journalist in which he described his deprived childhood and explained that his parents and siblings had all died as drunkards and derelicts (this does not appear to be true). He claimed that his ability to produce such beautiful copperplate was a mystery, demonstrating to journalists that he could barely write his own name.
With this in mind, I was amazed to find two post war letters by Stace on his service file. The first was dated August 15th, 1927 and addressed to the Defense Department. The handwriting was unmistakable; the D of Dear Sir showed the same, distinctive flourish as the E of the chalked ETERNITY.
Would you kindly forward on a Duplicate discharge for Arthur Malcolm Stace as I have lost mine through no fault of my own it has been lost three weeks today. I am a pensioner & cannot put in for the german Verge* fund without it so will be pleased if you will forward on as soon as possible thanking you for same…
*Mr German Verge was a New South Wales grazier who had bequeathed his estate to a fund for distressed veterans.
The letter contains several grammatical errors, but the handwriting is assured and elegant, raising questions about Mr Eternity’s own version of his childhood. It was written when he was living at Riley Street, Surry Hills. The second was dated October, 1935, addressed from Liverpool Street, Darlinghurst. Once again he had lost his discharge papers.
Could you kindly forward on a Duplicate discharge as the State Labour exchange will not accknowledge [sic] any other writing from Repatriation & it has put me in a very difficult Situation both for work & the Dole, as I have lost my discharge. I will be very grateful to you if you can forward Something in that line from Headquarters.
5934 Arthur Stace
19 Batt. 16 Reinforcements
5 Brigade N.S.W.
Enclosed was a Statuary Declaration in which Stace said he had lost the papers several years earlier, while shifting from one place to another, ‘…burned in the rubbish in mistake as far as I can think.’
The correspondence reveals a great deal about the dislocated lives of WWI veterans during the Depression, especially men like Arthur Stace, who were physically or mentally damaged. Unemployed and hounded for unpaid rent. they were often forced to make hurried moves from one furnished room to another. The poet Kenneth Slessor described the plight of such men in Darlinghurst Nights (1933);
Where the night is full of dangers
And the darkness full of fear,
And eleven hundred strangers
Live on Aspirin and beer.
Arthur Stace died from a stroke on July 30th 1967, aged 83. Typically, after contributing so much during his life, he bequeathed his body to medical science. His remains were interred at Botany cemetery two years later.
In the millennium year of 2000 the word ETERNITY was emblazoned across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, ,and thereby broadcast to four billion people around the world. Asked why he had chosen to use the symbol, the director of the celebrations Ignatius Jones commented; ‘It’s incredibly Sydney. It symbolized for me the madness, mystery and magic of the city.
Arthur’s life also inspired the Eternity Gallery at Canberra’s Museum of Australia. Its aim is to provide an insight into the nation through the lives and emotions of its people. Mr Eternity’s scarifying experiences in war and economic depression, followed by the solace of his religious faith, embodies the gallery’s ten themes; joy, hope, passion, mystery, thrill, loneliness, fear, devotion, separation, and chance.
Arthur Stace’s wraith-like figure was matched by his personality. Like a wisp of mist rising from Sydney Harbour, he is impossible to capture. The letters on his service file prove he was not illiterate, but we may never know the truth about his background. Was he gilding the lily in the service of God? If so, I suspect he was justified, such was his extraordinary dedication to his mission.
The poet Douglas Stewart provided a fitting epitaph for Mr Eternity;
It was the greatest of all words he wrote,
And if it hardly changed this wretched city,
God rest his soul, his copperplate was pretty.
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