The purser of any ship was and is the officer in charge of provisions and slops (the word for pre-made clothing aboard ship which comes from the Medieval word “sloppe” meaning breeches) for the crew. Until the modern era, officers were expected to maintain their own provisions and uniforms, so their personal stewards would be in charge of their food and clothing, leaving the ship’s purser to worry about the warrant men and foremast jacks. Because of his concern for supplies, and the usual accusation of abstemiousness that went along with same, the purser’s title found its way into a number of words common at sea.
A purser’s dip was the smallest of candles, one that would be recognizable on a modern birthday cake, allowed to crewmen prior to the 18th century for lighting their meals. Purser’s grins are what my mother would call “family looks”; a sneer or grimace made in response to something one did not approve of. A purser’s name was an alias given to the purser when one joined a ship’s crew; the purser being the man who entered a new jack’s name into the ship’s books. The alias was a way to avoid or dodge impressment.
The purser’s pound was a bone of contention in the service, particularly the Royal Navy, for years. The purser on any ship of war was allowed one eighth of all supplies for “waste”. Thus it was said that, particularly where food was concerned, men got only seven eighths of their share, with the purser keeping his “pound”. This argument led to more than one mutiny and was, over time, reduced officially by the Royal Navy to one tenth.
A purser’s shirt was any piece of clothing that was too loose or ill-fitting. A purser’s stocking was similarly a ready made piece of clothing, or slop, that would fit anyone.
Finally, the purser had his own steward who really amounted more to a secretary. This man kept books on all provisions and slops doled out to each mess over the course of a voyage and reported these numbers back to the admiralty or naval board before the ship was re-provisioned for her next cruise.
Mind your purser and keep on his good side, mates, or find your supper wanting as they used to say. And, just as an aside, congratulations to Navy on their ninth consecutive win over Army in the storied Army/Navy football game. Well done, Mids!
Header: Jack Aubrey and the Surprises cracking on from Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World