Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Button, Percy Archibald (1892–1954)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Percy Archibald Button (1892-1954), acrobat and itinerant, was born on 22 August 1892 at Marylebone Workhouse, London, son of Sarah Jane Button, kitchenmaid. Percy never knew his parents, but lived with a grandmother on the Isle of Wight until the age of 18, working as a fitter's assistant after leaving school. The story that he was injured while employed in an English circus cannot be proved, but in those years he learned the skills of an acrobat. Emigrating to Western Australia in 1910, he worked at odd jobs as a farmhand and in Perth. On 1 May 1917 Button enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He was 5 ft 4 ins (163 cm) tall, with blue eyes and brown hair. Sent to England with reinforcements for the 44th Battalion, he was invalided home and discharged on 10 October 1918 without having seen action.

He took to a vagrant life in Perth, sometimes earning a living by selling newspapers and collecting bottles, but soon becoming the city's best-known street entertainer. 'Percy Buttons' attracted bystanders through his clever tumbling, somersaults and the tricks he performed with handcuffs. His battered, upturned hat received many small coins, and he estimated that he averaged ten shillings a day by his street performances. On his best day, at a Royal Agricultural Show, he earned nearly £4, not far short of the weekly basic wage. Frequently arrested for vagrancy—often so that the police could find him warm lodging and a bath—he was nevertheless respected as scrupulously honest: he handed over many valuable articles he had found to the authorities.

Although Button liked a large gin squash now and then, he was no drunkard. He was a keen but unsuccessful speculator in lotteries, and, when he had money, often yielded to the lure of the local Chinese gaming-houses. A stooped, nuggety figure with a ragged moustache, known to some as 'Percy the Unwashed', he was turned away from many hotels and business premises, but dined regularly at a respectable restaurant—always on fried eggs. When a newspaper published a front-page picture of a 'well-known Perth character', scrubbed up in top hat, white tie and tails, few recognized 'Percy Buttons'.

Neither the 1930s Depression nor World War II made much difference to Button's style of living, but, as age slowed his acrobatic prowess, he added the mouth-organ to his repertoire and uncertainly mastered one tune, The Chestnut Tree. Attacked by a lout who kicked him in the stomach, Button was also crippled by a hernia; a series of heavily wet, postwar winters further impaired his health. By 1951 his condition had so deteriorated that arrangements were made for his admission to the Old Men's Home at Dalkeith. He died of coronary thrombosis on 5 March 1954 at Claremont Mental Hospital and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery with Catholic rites. The Repatriation Department paid for his funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • People (Sydney), 8 Nov 1950
  • Sunday Times (Perth), 7, 14 Mar 1954
  • E. E. Ranford, Oldtimers Who Also Played Their Part (manuscript, State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Button, Percy Archibald (1892–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/button-percy-archibald-9649/text17021, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 29 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017