Visitors to the fine city of Perth will be aware of a striking hand standing statue in Hay Street of a gentleman by the name of Percy Button – often misspelled by pluralising his surname.
A prominent street entertainer in his day, he performed dynamic acrobatics and blew the odd tune on a mouth organ outside the bus stops of the Regal theatre (pictured).
Percy was welcomed into the world at the Marylebone Workhouse, London on the 22nd August 1892. He was the illegitimate child of a kitchen made, Sarah Jane, but the responsibility of his upbringing would be left to his loving grandmother. At one time Percy was employed in an English circus where he was injured performing his acrobatics and this maybe where he sustained a detrimental brain condition. In 1910 he emigrated to the colonies, landing in Perth, Western Australia taking on odd jobs around the local district.
In 1917 he enlisted to serve his new found country. It would have been earlier, but Percy was only five foot four and didn’t meet the height restriction requirement of the initial call up. With dwindling numbers of troops these constraints were alleviated and Perc was in there like a dirty shirt. With the 44th Battalion reinforcements he disembarked in Liverpool, UK for further training. He wouldn’t witness any action on the Western Front after being discharged after having difficulties with his platoon sergeant. Their relationship came to a head when Percy was asked if there was anything he could do. Promptly Percy turned several flip flops and somersaults. His papers were stamped, Back to Australia for reason of Congenital Mental Deficiency. Further notes on his discharge read, “Dirty and insanitary in his habits. Doesn’t understand words or commands.” If that wasn’t enough they added “Head is oval, narrow from side to side. He also has a high forehead.” A little harsh!
Percy would regularly attend the local football matches each weekend performing his acrobatics on the grassy knolls for a few coins. He was never known to be rude or disrespectful or even use bad language. Percy was as honest as the day is long often handing in lost valuables to authorities discovered during his routine day of scavenging, collecting bottles and playing the mouth organ. At one time Percy tried to join Wirth’s Circus when they arrived in town only to be rejected.
1929 was an eventful year for Percy. His profile soared within the Perth community. Percy had found a friend in Perth’s daily newspaper, The Mirror. In November they ran a front page competition to guess the identity of a prominent citizen. Under the banner of Do You Know This Man Percy was given a makeover which included a haircut and shave. Dressed in evening attire, his depiction was splashed across the front page. Several readers guessed correctly, however he was mistaken for some high profile people including Sir Robert McMillan, Chief Justice or the Supreme Court of Western Australia.
(Percy Archibald Button as he appeared in the competition on the left and Sir Robert McMillan to the right. Below Percy before the makeover)
The paper would remain in constant vigil with Percy and later that year they sought his impressions of Christmas.
The weather is very hot at Christmas. What I am going to do this Christmas is to go to Cottesloe for a swim, turn somersaults and hand-springs, and look for bottles. What I would like best for a Christmas present is a Gramphone. What I think is the best Christmas present for everybody is some turkeys or ducks for married people or for single people siggeretts, sigars or chocolates. What I usually do at Christmas is to go to Point Walter by the Zephyr and do acrobatic tricks and have a swim or go to Cottesloe by the train or the taxi to go for a swim and do some somersaults and look for some bottles. And then I go to North Cottesloe Beach and the City Beach. That’s my Christmas.
From time to time he had run-ins with the local constabulary, who were not as enamoured as the general public with his antics. Twice in 1933 he found himself at the authorities displeasure. Police Constable Handcock stated at the hearing that Percy was, “in the habit of gathering small boys about him, showing them his tricks and how to get out of hand cuffs.” In the magistrate summation he remarked, “I said all I have to say last time. You are a problem. Button. You are not normal. I’m satisfied of that. Yet, you do not seem to be a fit subject for any of our institutions. You are not an edifying sight; you may amuse a certain class of people, but to the majority you’re so offensive that they have to hasten to get away from you. If you are sick I’m going to send you to a place where you will get proper medical attention — one months hard labor.” ( Perth Mirror Saturday 18th February 1933) Then in 1940 he was off again.
( The Daily News Saturday 15th June 1940)
In July 1939 The Mirror printed a poem Percy penned about doing time in Fremantle prison. At the time of his reflection being printed, he was in Perth hospital suffering a hernia after being repeatedly attacked and kicked by thugs.
Here I sit in a prison cell. Thinking of a girl named Nell; Twenty-five more nights of misery, When my time is done I will go to sea.
Although a convict I was forced to be, Nothing in life will trouble me. Idle and disorderly was my charge, Three months I had for being at large;
I saw the bugs crawl on the wall. When the lights went out And reflections of iron bars along the wall, And the shadow of a rat. Now what do you think of that?
I read a book to pass the time away From the never-ending day Alone I sat in a prison cell, Thinking of my pal I knew so well. Thinking, thinking all the time, Such is life; Now, what’s the time?
Then I heard a newsboy shout — I do not know what it was about. No more papers for me to read; That is very bad for me indeed. What is life without your friends. You’re better dead, Then your troubles end.
In 1952 Percy was admitted to the hospital ward of Dalkeith Sunset House (an old mans home), where he lamented the loss of his mouth organ. The Mirror had reported Percy’s dilemma and had requested their readership to be on the lookout. The paper received a phone call from a man who found it and they also had a very kind lady drop in a new mouth organ to the paper’s offices along with a few shillings to boot. Percy wasn’t allowed to play his new gob iron at the home as the rendering of his theme tune, Underneath The Spreading Of The Chestnut Tree, was considered a bit too raunchy for the elderly residents. Perhaps a line like ‘kissing and sitting on his knee’ wasn’t appropriate in those times, or maybe Percy added a few risqué lyrics of his own. Maybe there’s a double entendres.
Percy died on the 5th March 1954 aged sixty one at the Claremont Hospital.
Cheers to you Percy with a gin and squash – your favourite drink, which I know you only had now and then – for you were not a drunkard. Happy hand springing and mouth organ blowing in the ever after.
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