If you’ve visited Perth and if you’ve walked around the Hay Street Mall I’m sure you would’ve (at least once) come across the extremely lifelike statue of a man doing a handstand.
The striking artwork created by Charlie Smith and Joan Walsh-Smith is a constant source of interest with tourists and locals alike stopping to take photos. I’m sure Percy Button would’ve been extremely pleased.
Percy Archibald Button was born on 22 August 1892 in the Marylebone Workhouse in London, England. He was the illegitimate child of a kitchen maid named Sarah Jane who, for reasons of her own, did not raise him. Baptised on 11 September 1892, he subsequently lived with his grandmother until he came of age. Initially apprenticed at the age of 17 to J.M. White in the Isle of Wight, he worked as a fitter’s assistant and at some time during the early 1900s, he acquired acrobatic skills.
In 1910, at the age of 18, he emigrated to Western Australia where he worked in and around Perth doing odd jobs.
Like many other young men, on 1 May 1917, he enlisted into the Australian Imperial Forces. He was 24 years of age with a fresh complexion, brown hair and blue eyes and was noted as having a white birthmark on his right arm. He was also quite short; standing 5 feet and 4 inches tall. At the time of enlistment he was living in the Salvation Army Home on Queen Street in Perth.
He left Australia for England in July that year as part of the reinforcements for the 44th Battalion but by 20 March 1918 he was discharged and returned to Australia due to ‘congenital mental deficiency’.
The official medical report described him as:
Dirty and insanitary in his habits. Does not understand words of command. He is slow in answering questions. The trouble seems congenital as the state of his head is oval and narrow from side to side. He also has a very high forehead [?].
Upon his return he fell into a life of vagrancy and throughout the years, he once again worked odd jobs around Perth including bottle collecting, paper selling and performing acrobatic tricks. It was his acrobatics which attracted the most attention.
Often setting himself up outside the many theatres which once existed in Perth, Percy would tumble, somersault and entertain the crowds with handcuff tricks in the hope that some generous soul would toss a few coins into his old hat.
He soon became a well-known identity to the people of Perth as well as to the police who constantly arrested him for vagrancy and on occasion, frequenting illegal Chinese gambling houses.
In 1929 one of the newspapers of the day, the ‘Mirror’ ran a ‘Trick Contest’ where they dressed various people in costume and then asked their readers to guess who they were. On 23 November 1929, 37 year old Percy was sent to a barber, dressed in evening clothes and then posed for a photograph.
Several thousand entries were sent in and only 20% of them were correct. In this instance, appearances made all the difference. Perhaps more people would’ve recognised him in his normal attire.
As the years rolled by he continued living as a vagrant and was often arrested. At times, instead of being fined, he was sent to Fremantle Prison where, during his time there, he at least was clean and had a bed to sleep on. He wrote a poem about his time in prison when at age 49 he was admitted to Royal Perth Hospital for a hernia operation (http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75870367).
Time was not kind to Percy. Growing older meant that he was no longer as nimble as he once was and it became harder for him to perform the acrobatic tricks which helped him earn a meagre living. Realising this, he instead took to playing the harmonica.
In February 1952 his plight was printed in the Mirror:
He has no home, sleeping in doorways, back lanes, in parks, behind hotels— anywhere he can rest. He lives a pitiful and lonely life. But he has never been known to insult anyone, create any disturbance or use bad language.
A month later his health worsened and he was reported as being a resident of the ‘Sunset Old Mens’ Home’ in Dalkeith. Not one to be tied down, he still made regular visits to Perth.
His condition however did not improve and he was sent to the Claremont Hospital for the Insane where he spent the remainder of his days. The man who once entertained the people of Perth died from coronary thrombosis on 5 March 1954 at age 61. Being a veteran of WWI, he was laid to rest in Karrakatta Cemetery at the expense of the Repatriation Department.
It’s so easy to forget that many years ago there were probably lots of characters in Perth just like Percy Button. After his death it was extremely likely that he could’ve simply remained a part of history with only a few people knowing who he was. He was not wealthy and he had no family to make his story known. Somehow however he managed to break through the barriers of the past and became a part of the modern world. In 1996 he was first immortalised as an aerial sculpture over Hay Street Mall (http://www.perthvista.com/public-art-of-perth.html) and when that was removed in 2005, it was replaced by the bronze sculpture you see today.
At the time all Percy was really doing was finding a way to live. Through his actions however he managed to contribute and bring joy to society. He became memorable to the Perth people and in spite of his humble circumstances, after his death, his light continued to shine. Immortalised in bronze on the street where he once worked, he and his story will live on for years to come.
Ancestry.com. London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906 [database on-line].
Information on the sculpture obtained from Public Art Around the World (http://www.publicartaroundtheworld.com/Percy_Button_Sculpture.html).
The Australian Dictionary of Biography (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/button-percy-archibald-9649).
Information on Percy’s WWI records obtained from Mapping Our Anzacs (http://mappingouranzacs.naa.gov.au/).
1929 ‘DO YOU KNOW THIS MAN ?.’, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 23 November, p. 1, viewed 23 November, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article76190453
1929 ‘PERCY BUTTON MISTAKEN FOR SIR ROBERT McMILLAN.’, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 30 November, p. 16, viewed 23 November, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article76194929
1933 ‘PERCY BUTTON ‘CLEANED UP’.’, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 7 January, p. 4, viewed 23 November, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75508008
1933 ‘PERCY BUTTON.’, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 18 February, p. 9, viewed 23 November, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75506953
1952 ‘PERCY BUTTON: GO TO A HOME NEXT YEAR.’, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 23 February, p. 14, viewed 23 November, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75783018
1952 ‘PERCE IN PINK PYJAMAS.’, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 8 March, p. 4, viewed 23 November, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75784468
1950 ‘PHOTO MODEL LOOKED UNDONE.’, Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954), 5 March, p. 8, viewed 23 November, 2012, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59512926
Metropolitan Cemeteries Board online index (http://www.mcb.wa.gov.au/Index.aspx).