Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 12, 2023

Sensational Snippets: The Watcher on the Cast-iron Balcony (1963), by Hal Porter

Hal (Harold) Porter AM (1911 – 1984) was an Australian novelist, playwright, poet and short story writer. He’s one of those authors I’d heard about, but never read, probably because his novels were published before my adult reading life really began. His oeuvre at Wikipedia includes plentiful short story collections, and the novels A Handful of Pennies (1958); The Tilted Cross (1961) and The Right Thing (1971), but he is most famous for his memoir The Watcher on the Cast-iron Balcony (1963).  It’s subtitled an Australian Autobiography but it’s not straightforward — he is at pains to warn the reader not to believe everything he writes.

In Chapter Two, he records his vivid first impressions when the family moved from metropolitan Kensington in Melbourne to Bairnsdale in Gippsland.  Though the legend of ANZAC grows, World War 1 is far away and his preoccupations are those of a small boy, swapping sins with the other children as they swap postage-stamps and dolls. 

As he looks back on his life, he acknowledges that he appears to have catalogued Mother more than any human being.  

In the country, Mother changes. Or rather, so far as I am concerned, she appears as another kind of Mother. […] She is now a woman almost always in an apron of black Italian cloth, her blouse sleeves rolled back above her beautiful forearms which turn day by day from white to country brown, a woman labelled with the names of days. (p.57)

She is Monday when she works with the washerwoman at the outdoor copper.

She is Tuesday when they do the ironing together.

She is Wednesday when she shakes the mats and mops the fluff and hunts for cobwebs.

She is green-fingered Thursday — and at her happiest, working in her garden.

But she is different when she is Friday:

… curling-pinned, slap-dashing vivacious and deftly through domesticity so that she can dress herself up, flee from her family into the after-dinner twilight, and go shopping. (p.58)

She’s not shopping for anything essential, and nothing mundane. Porter paints a vivid portrait of an era long gone:

The baker, the bloody butcher in a nimbus of flies, the milkman, canter into Mitchell Street daily; the grocer, the fishmonger, the rabbit-oh, the John Chinaman greengrocer and fruiterer, the iceman and the egg-woman appear once or twice weekly; the knife-grinder, the tinker, the chimney-sweep, the clothes-prop man, the old clo’ man, the clothes peg gypsy and the Afghan pedlar drift through as regularly on time as the seasons, and the dust-laying water-waggon, and the ice-cream carts, and the swallows or their children which build their demi-cups of mud under the wooden shade over my bedroom window. Powdered and scented (eau-de-Cologne or Lily of the Valley), in her best earrings and gloves and dazzling polished shoes, her enamelled watch pinned to her bust, chewing a Sen-sen or a clove, Mother goes shopping… for what? (p.59)

What indeed?

Another caller, BTW is ‘Untouchable.’ He is the night-man, the dunny-man, outcast of outcasts who is never acknowledged.  He gets a whole page to himself.

Heralded by a stench and the clashing of metal doors and galvanised iron, his horses pace slowly into the street. Windows are closed.  Eyes are averted, and breaths held. As all tradesman’s horses of that era do, the butcher’s, the baker’s, the grocer’s, the milkman’s, his horses move from house to house, from tradesman’s entrance to tradesman’s entrance, without being directed.  They stop; they pause waiting for their drivers; they move on, at exactly the right moment, as though by clockwork, Calvanistically long-faced with resignation, their manes in girlish plaits, their eyelashes covered in dust.  In summer they wear straw hats through slots in which their ears protrude like hairy leaves. (p.75)

I remember being astonished and (unobtrusively, I hope) appalled by the existence of the ‘night man’ when in the 1960s I ventured to the then new suburb of Keilor to visit a school friend from my brief sojourn at Essendon North State School.  In all my travels I had never encountered such primitive arrangements, but they were emblematic of the lack of planning for rapid expansion of Australian cities. I have a memory of Gough Whitlam (Prime Minister 1972-1975) making an election promise to get the outer suburbs properly sewered, and though it seems an odd undertaking from such a high-minded politician, it probably won a good many seats!

More pleasurably, I remember as a five-year-old hitching a ride with the milkman in the village of St Agnes in Cornwall.  It was as good as a guided tour that you get today with the red buses that escort tourists round the cities of Europe.  An historian of place, he warned us with great solemnity never to go walking in the fields because they were littered with old tin mines that hadn’t been filled in properly.  (A practice that made its way to Australia during the Gold Rush as miners rushed off to the next ‘strike’.)  If we fell into one of those holes obscured by a bit of grass, he said, we’d never be seen again, and shared sad tales of children lost forever in those bucolic fields.

But truth be told, I kept out of the fields more because I was petrified of the cows.

Author: Hal Porter
Title: The Watcher on the Cast-iron Balcony, An Australian Autobiography
Publisher: Faber and Faber 1986, first published in London in 1963
ISBN: 9780571081790, pbk., 255 pages
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind

Picture credits: Sen-sen photo by Trevorteusc – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,



  1. I remember those Whitlam promises as well. I grew up in sewered regional cities in Tasmania, but I also heard stories about ‘the last tram driver’ (my grandfather’s name for the night cart man).


    • Ah, that’s a euphemism I hadn’t heard!


  2. I’ve always wanted to read this … sounds a wonderful insight into Australia of that time. I also enjoyed the little insight into your youth!

    I remember going on a holiday to the NSW Central Coast in the late 60s with my mother, aunt, sister and brother. It was to a pretty primitive beach house with the old unsewered sunny out the back. Being a woman of the world – ie having spent some of my childhood in less progressive Queensland I was familiar with such things but we tried to warn my brother who was probably around 9 about it. I’ll never forget his shock when he saw it. “I didn’t think it would be like that!” he said, though what he imagined I don’t think we ever clarified. It was a memorable holiday in many ways.


    • Ha, so it wasn’t just my English prissiness!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! When I lived on the Central Coast in the 70’s the sewerage was in underground tanks in the backyard. Every so often the sewerage truck would come around with its long bendy hose, attach itself the tank somehow (I was a rather uncurious child) and suck out whatever was in the tank. I think I simply preferred not to think about!

      Now, living in Balmain, the suburb bears many reminders of these earlier times. Most of the streets have small laneways behind them that now access garages, but once they were the laneways used by the night soil carts. And that funny little shed in the back corner filled with junk, was once the old outdoor dunny.

      You’ll be pleased to know someone has made a booklet about it –


      • Actually, now I come to think about it, there used to be a laneway in my own street where the houses were all built in the 1950s, but was disused by the time we bought ours. The laneway got sold off by the powers that be … *pause, racks brain* … in the 1980s?
        There was also a laneway along the back of the house we rented beforehand in Caulfield, and that was sold off while we were living there, so it must have been in the early 1970s.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am thrilled to know about Balmain’s dunnies! Thanks Brona. BTW another example of a job that disappeared … I wonder how those men felt at the time!


  3. One of my favourite memoirs. Thank you for showcasing it.


    • It’s great nostalgia, and the writing is brilliant.


  4. Read it long time ago. Brilliant. Sure I have a copy among my books. Maybe due another read. Those Aussie bogs were something else and when I lived in Sydney a few of my friends had them which was always a bit of drama for my children when we visited. And for a Glaswegian familiar with the shared loos in tenements they were something quite different. I recall the great man’s policies on bringing modern sewerage to the suburbs.


    • LOL Of course he was great in many other ways too. I listened to his Press Club address in the State Library of Victoria’s archive, just the other day!


      • He was exceptional. I had the pleasure of meeting him at a WA fundraiser for Brian Burke. His charming wife introduced me and she was a delightful down to earth woman. Special memory. And that speech memorable.


        • I saw him only ever from afar, at a protest meeting after the Dismissal.


  5. FYI: Hal Porter was friends with Eve Langley. I think this is covered more in his later autobiographies.


  6. This sounds so evocative of a particular time. I really enjoyed the quotes you pulled.


    • TBH There’s something worth quoting on almost every page…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Good to hear you got around to reading this, it sounds like something of an Aussie classic.


  8. Hi LIsa, I think I read The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony in the 70s. As well, I do own Hal Porter’s The Paper Chase. As you say he is very good writer, and I love his observations. When I lived in the hills, my brothers had the pleasure of emptying our pan in a big hole down in the back yard!


    • Eeuch!
      I’m going to put that image right out of my mind!


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