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Pursers, Pussers, Slops and Uniform









The Purser of the old Navy (above) was a man whose integrity was so frequently a matter of supposition that he was forced to lodge a sum of money in the shape of two sureties, varying from £1,200 in first rates to a lesser sum in smaller ships, as a guarantee against speculation. The price of his Warrant, which he bought, was in the reign of James I. between £60 and £70. This, however, did not prevent the Purser lining his pockets at the expense of the Seaman. He was expected to do so and considered a fool if he refrained - the latter charge being rare. There were various ways in which he made a good thing out of his job, of which the following are a few:


Keeping men’s names on the books if they were Dead, ‘Run,’ or discharged.


By ‘Short Allowance Money’ and victuals for the men so borne.


By giving the men ‘beverage’ for good wine, or shrunken and poor victuals instead of prime when on foreign voyages.


Making out Pay Tickets for men who were Dead or ‘Run’, and giving their attorneys or executors a small sum in consideration for drawing their pay.


Probably the most iniquitous proceeding of all was the first-named, the man being tricked in to leaving the ship, either by going ashore, or being loaned to another vessel, when the unfortunate fellow lost the whole of the wages due to him, the Purser drawing them with a forged Pay Ticket.


By an act of George II., a Purser was entitled to keep two imaginary men per hundred on his books, and these were known as Widows men. The values of their pay and provisions was paid by the Paymaster General to the Widows Fund. This practice commenced about 1763, when the seven years War was terminated by the Peace of Paris, and we find regulations as to the numbers allowed to ships and their rates of pay, in the Navy Lists up to 1831. The expression came to mean an entirely imaginary person. Short Allowance Money was the money credited to the men when on short allowance owing to the scarcity of provisions. Orders were given in the reign of Queen Anne that Short Allowance credits were always to be paid to the men themselves, but his seems to have been more honoured in the breach than in the observance.


The Purser had very little to do with the actual handling of the men’s wages, as these were drawn at the end of a voyage or commission, from a Pay Office ashore on presentation of a Pay Ticket furnished by the Purser. In most cases, they were bought at the seaports for about a third of their value, and subsequently cashed by the Jews or Crimps who infested the ships on their arrival.


On account of the various tricks enumerated, it is not surprising that the Purser was known on the lower deck by he nickname of Mr. Nipcheese. The expression to Make a dead man chew also comes from the same source. It is probable that, in this respect, the Naval Purser stands out pre-eminently as the only one who has ever managed to do so.


Slops were bought from a Contractor by the Purser, the Contractor being known as the Slop Seller. He was bound by instructions to allow the Purser 1/- in the £ on all sales. By overcharging both the living and the dead the Purser added to his commission and also to the over plus of his stock, which would become his at the end of the voyage. He was very much in the Slop Seller’s hands and if the two did not agree, the Captain was authorised to appoint someone else to receive and vend the slops. It was hardly in the interest of the Captain to interfere, as he also made a good thing out of these practices. Up to 1837 it was customary for the Purser to give private pay to his Clerk at the rough annual rate of £1 per gun for every gun carried by the ship.


The junior member of the Paymaster’s Victualling staff is known as the Dusty Boy or Jack Dusty. Tobacco was not supplied until 1798, and even then was mostly used to chew and not to smoke, smoking only being permitted in the galley.


It is owing to the nefarious practices on the part of the Purser that the system came into force which is still with us of Mustering by the Open List, when every man personally reports who he is and what he is paid for. This ceremony is called Mustering by the Ledger, or in lower deck slang White Line Day, from the fact that every man Toes the Line as he recounts the duties for which he draws pay. The ceremony is generally carried out quarterly and at Inspections.


It was not until 1748 that Uniform was first established for Naval Officers, and regulations do not appear to have been fixed concerning the man until 1857, although there had been spasmodic and ineffectual efforts long before this to get a certain standard of dress. What little uniformity that was introduced was chiefly due to the Slop Seller supplying the demand for clothing which was in vogue at the particular period. Trousers were a comparatively modern invention; an old time sailor as a rule wore a petticoat. In 1553, it appears that the Mariners of a squadron commanded by Captain Richard Chancellor were apparelled in Watchett, or sky-coloured cloth, made at and called after the busy industrial town of XV., XVI., and XVII. Centuries “By the Severn Sea” near “Blue Anchor”, and about 1600 a writer mentions that, on meeting a vessel in the Pacific, “We know her to be English because the Seamen wore breeches.”


Chaucer describes the 14th Century seaman wearing a gown of Falding to the knee. In Captain Marryatt’s time the canvas petticoat was still part of a sailor’s kit


We cannot stop too long on the subject of Uniform, but there are certain points worthy of note. The present-day sailor’s knife has no point, and probably is of this shape, not only that it may be used as a screwdriver, but in order to conform to the ancient laws already quoted, so that the practice of stabbing became a matter of difficulty. In sailing ships, even to-day, I myself have personally seen a man have the point of his knife broken off by the Mate, and a few years ago it was an almost invariable rule that knives with points were barred. A knife with no point was also less liable to damage a sail when cutting the ‘stops.’


The sailor’s lanyard was of no fixed length, but depended on the length of the arm, so that he could open his knife with one hand when the lanyard was round his neck.


A sailor’s silk handkerchief, popularly supposed to be a sign of mourning for Lord Nelson, is of very much earlier date than this, and chroniclers tell us that it was worn in action either round the head to prevent the sweat running into a man’s eyes; round the waist, or as a pad over his knee in case he was one of the handspike numbers at the heavy guns. When ashore, it’s colour varied according to individual taste. The ‘Fancy man’ had a strong preference for what is known as a ‘Bird’s eye’, and if he was really particular in his appearance, he would wear one of the colour of ‘Blood and broken eggs.’ This was worn knotted loosely round the throat.


One of the relics of the old rig still in use are the pumps worn by riggers in the Royal Yacht. The word Pumps, I believe, is derived from the fact that they were the form of footwear commonly worn at the focus of society - the Pump Room at Bath.


Many Captains dressed their barges’ crews according to their fancy. It is on record that the Captains of the ‘Blazer’, ‘Harlequin’, and the ‘Trincomalee’ all did so, and I believe the Captain of the ‘Caledonia’, as late as the 19th Century, dressed his barge’s crew in Tam-o’-shanters. Admiral Vernon also had ideas on this subject, and clothed his barge’s crew in red.


Epaulettes were brought into the English Navy long after the Army had them and after they were common in the French Service. When first introduced, they were more or less a private adornment and were shaped like a tassel and were known, and are known now, as Swabs. We read that Nelson, when at St. Omer in France, met Captains Ball and Shephard, who apparently wore epaulettes, for he wrote to a friend concerning these Officers- “They wore fine epaulettes, for which I think them great coxcombs. They have not visited me, and I shall not court their acquaintance.” It is worthy of note that this fretful mood revived in Nelson’s mind some fifteen years later, when, in 1798, Captain Ball took command of the “ALEXANDER” to join Nelson, who is credited with the words- “What, have you come to have your bones broken.” It is gratifying to learn that his opinion of Sir Alexander Ball underwent a somewhat drastic change in later years.


The main reason for the introduction of epaulettes was that foreign sentries did not accord the usual honour to British Officers, as they did not recognise them as Officers without epaulettes. “Cocked Hats,” which were originally triangular were, and are, known to this day as Scrapers. The collar, with its three rows of tape, generally supposed to commemorate Nelson’s three victories, was introduced with the seaman’s uniform in 1857, and I believe it is a fact that the original pattern was designed with two rows of tape and that the third crept in by error. 12


A collar of sorts had long been popular, but the idea that the collar was to keep the tar or dressing of the pig tail off the coat is, I feel sure, a popular error.


A Midshipman’s Patches are known as his Weekly Accounts, and it is a matter of grave doubt whether “Young Gentlemen” ever wore a white collar all round or, even if they did so, that such was to keep the powder from their pigtails off their coats.


During the Commonwealth the men wore their hair cropped. After the Restoration, when officers took to very full and flowing wigs, the men adopted long hair and ringlets, but left the hair untied. About 1740, Officers wore tie wigs, though these were, as a rule, reserved for dress occasions. It appears that about 1760-I780 the natural hair of the Officers was queued, and that about 1787 the men commenced also to tie their hair, but it does not seem that the practice became really fashionable until about 1805, and went completely out of vogue just about fifteen years later. Love Locks remained as a facial adornment till about 1850, when beards became the fashion, and the Foretopman’s Lock was in use till about 1910, when shore-loafing dandy took to plastering his hair back like a rat that had eaten his way through a keg of butter.


The pig-tail went out of fashion ashore about 1785. When worn by a seaman it was the hall mark of the Navy man, and the Merchant Service did not affect the style at all.


Eel skins were sometimes used as a Heart when making a tail, and yarns laid up with the hair to increase the size.


Tails were worn long when ashore, but Clubbed when on board, or when working. The pig-tails took a deal of tying and adjustment, and particular friends would perform the office for each other the term Tienstes or Tie and Tie and damn all favours.


Pressed men being generally lousy, were close cropped on arrival, and so a good tail came to be the mark of a clean well disciplined man, and finally became a symbol of professional pride and the sign of a Staid hand. In the days when hirsute appendages to the face were popular, and when the art of naval gunnery consisted mostly of cutlass drill, burnishing the ready use shot, and putting the quarterly practice allowance down the ash chute, to save dirtying the guns, a favourite saying was Attitude is the art of gunnery, and Whiskers make the man.


The Gunnery Officers of the Fleet retaliated by describing the qualifications of the Salt Horse Officer as being possessed of the Deportment and manners of a rigger, a Topsail yard voice, and a Rope of oaths. Aiguillettes are, I believe, of feudal origin and originated as a badge of office in the following manner: The horses of the chief and his immediate entourage were picketed close to their tents, and when camp was struck it was the duty of one of the retainers to take up the picket ropes and pegs, after the remainder were mounted, and to carry them until they were next required. The ropes were worn round the body with the pegs hanging down, and the chief could easily be located by the proximity of his henchman who was thus attired. Thus they eventually came to be regarded as a badge of the personal staff, and superseded the sash which had been worn in the Navy up to the year 1879. There is also the belief that aiguillettes were originally the prickers which were used for clearing the vents of the old horse pistols, and that the weapon was handed to the orderly or henchman to be cleaned and reloaded while the second pistol was in use.


The Army had adopted aiguillettes for many years before they became part of the Naval uniform. ADC’s to Royalty, Viceroys, and Governors General wear aiguillettes on the right side - all others on the left.


Royal Aiguillettes are of plain gold.


Naval Aiguillettes are of blue and gold. Military Aiguillettes are of red and gold.


The baggy trousers of the sailor are possibly a descendant of the old petticoat, although many people say that they were designed so as to be easily rolled up when scrubbing decks.


Badges on buttons and the arrangement of buttons have been many and varied. For a few years the Engineers of the Navy had engines on their buttons, but this did not last long. The buttons were arranged according to the Branch of the Service, in two’s and three’s, similar to the method adopted today by foot regiments forming the Brigade of Guards. In former times, Doctors also had a badge on their buttons somewhat similar to the crest now borne by the Royal Army Medical Corps, only the anchor was incorporated in the design.


The origin of the Executive curl seems to be wrapped in mystery. There is a story that one, Captain Elliot, wounded in the arm in the Crimea war, used the gold on his sleeve as a sling and that it was called Elliott’s eye. I think, however, that the Elliott’s eye referred to is the method of making an eye in a hemp cable and said to have been introduced into the Service by the Honourable William Eliot, a member of the Board of Admiralty in 1800 and 1801.


In comparatively recent years it is said that in the memoirs of the late Sir Charles Dundas of Dundas, an Admiral’s wife who accompanied her husband to sea insisted on wearing a uniform monkey jacket. The same officer relates the idiosyncrasies of certain Captains of that period, some of whom neglected to wear uniform at all, but went about in a plain black coat and a white top hat. One officer went so far as to wear so thin a jacket that his red braces showed through. Top hats with uniform were in vogue during the memory of officers still serving in 1927.


In 1867, Aides-de-Camp to the Sovereign wore crimson sashes similar to those of Army Officers. While on this subject we might remark that the sashes worn in the Army and Royal Marines are relics of the lining of cloaks of the Officers and Sergeants who used them for transporting wounded. Sergeants of the Somerset Light Infantry are the only regiment in the British Army who are entitled to wear their sashes with the knot on the right side, the same as Officers. This distinction was granted because of the gallantry of the Sergeants of this regiment at the Battle of Culloden on April 16th. 1746. (Confirmed by a Horse Guards Order of April 3rd. 1865.)


George II. selected Blue and White as the Naval colours, as he had seen the Duchess of Bedford riding in the Park in a dress of this nature, which had struck him very favourably. The actual order was dated April 13th. 1748, and promulgated as Domestic News in the Jacobite Journal, and not by any gazette or Order in Council. No patterns were sent abroad, but were all lodged with the Navy Office. It is therefore hardly surprising that we find that on February 13th. 1749, Admiral Boscawen writes that he cannot comply with the order, as he was entirely at a loss as to patterns.


The expression Post Captain was derived from the term Post Ship. Such ships were of such rate that they were important commands whose captains would need to take precedence and command over ships of inferior rate and consequently of the officers commanding them, particularly when engaged in convoy duty.


It is still correct for a Commander in the Navy to be introduced and referred to as Captain so and so, because it has ever been the custom for Commanders to be appointed as second in command of more important ships and in sole command of lesser units.


The French and other foreign Navies perpetuate the practice of referring to the rank of an officer by the type of command suitable to his seniority, thus a Post Captain is Capitaine de vaisseau, a Commander is called Capitaine de fregate, and a Lieutenant Commander is Capitaine de corvette.


The term “Lieutenant-Commander“ was introduced in 1912, prior to which date an officer with two and a half stripes was a senior Lieutenant. All Lieutenants in command were termed Lieutenant and Commander prior to the introduction of the title, and with the change the present practice came into force. VICTUALS AND PROVISIONS


I have little to say on this subject, as their quality was filthy and their quantity, except as regards liquor, negligible. It is on record that MR. WILLIAM THOMPSON, writing in 1761, states that mariners of the King’s ships have frequently put 24 hours’ allowance of salt provisions into their tobacco boxes. The allowance of beer or wine was one gallon per diem.


Owing to the limited stowage of beer, the practice of’ issuing rum as a substitute came into being early in the 18th Century, and finally was officially adopted. Rum, like beer or wine, was issued twice a day, the allowance being one pint for men and half a pint for boys. It appears that the beer was weak, generally stinking, and not the type of beverage that was capable of putting the “Souls of three butchers into one weaver.” I have read that both Hawkins and Frobisher decided that they could cruise “As long as the beer lasted”. In 1740, Admiral Vernon instituted the practice of having the rum watered, and since those days it has borne the name of Grog, this being the nickname of the Admiral who habitually wore grogram clothing and was nicknamed Old Grog.


Blake introduced brandy about 1650 and rum was substituted in March, 1687 (or 1688) as a result of our conquest of Jamaica.


We read that the cheese and the beef were capable on occasions of being cut into buttons, which seems to point out that these commodities were of a singularly indigestible nature. Water was kept in casks, and was never issued until all else failed, by which time it was noisome and stinking, as the casks were frequently used for a variety of purposes. It is nice to think that the water round London was considered to be “particularly good”.


The term Junk or Salt Junk derives its name from a species of bulrush of which ropes were formerly made, and this affords us a practical view of the sailor’s opinion concerning the quality of his rations.




The expression A Sea Cook has come down to us as an epithet of contempt – and not without good cause. The original Cooks were generally cripples who had been injured in the Service. In 1704 the Lord High Admiral issued an order to appoint Cooks to Her Majesty’s Service, giving preference to Such cripples and maimed persons who were Pensioners to the Chest of Chatham. LORD NOTTINGHAM, when Lord High Admiral, gave a patent to his own Cook to appoint all Cooks in the Navy!


The Cooks had certain perquisites, one of which was half the slush from the coppers, which he was permitted to dispose of as he thought fit, provided it was not made into Duff for the sailors; the other half had to be given to the Boatswain for grease. He had a boy to help him and, being a cripple, did very little himself. In the early days he was what was known as a Standing Officer, with the Purser, Boatswain, Carpenter, and Gunner, and held a Warrant for his appointment. For the use of his galley to any privileged friend who endeavoured to make his rations somewhat more palatable, he exacted dues in the shape of grog or tobacco.


His funnel, for which he was responsible, became known as Charlie Noble. It was originally of wood.


I have heard that Charlie Noble was a Merchant Captain who lived about 1820 - 1870 and insisted on having a brass funnel.


H.M.S. Victory, when re-fitting 1801-3, was given an iron funnel; up to 1800 they were made of wood. The Cook’s assistant was known as Jack Nastyface.


It was customary when in harbour for the Cook always to have a red hot poker available for the firing of salutes.








The Cook is to have the Charge of the Steep-Tub and to be answerable for the Meat put therein, if any Part thereof shall be lost through his want of Care.




He is to see the Meat duly watered, and the Provisions carefully and clearly boiled, and issued to the Men, according to the Practice of the Navy.


Upon the appearance of Stormy Weather, he is to be careful to secure the Steep-Tub, so that it may not be washed overboard: but if through any unexpected Accident which he cannot prevent the same shall happen to be lost, which the Captain is to certify, he is to make Oath to the Number of Pieces lost, that is to be allowed upon the Purser’s Account.


The Steep Tub was used to soak the meat and extract the brine in which the beef was pickled. It was also known as the Harness Cask.




The following is an extract from “THREE BOOKS OF COLLOQUIES CONCERNING THE ART OF SHOOTING IN GREAT AND SMALL PIECES OF ARTILLERY,” which was written in Italian, by Nicholas Tartaglia, and has been translated into English by Cyprian Lucar. It concerns the properties, Office and Duty of a Gunner.


A Gunner ought to be sober, wakeful, lusty, hardy, patient, and a quick-spirited man; he ought also to have a good eyesight, a good judgement, and a perfect knowledge to select a convenient place in the day of service, to plant his ordinance where he may do most hurt unto the enemies, and be least annoyed by them.


Also a Gunner in time of service ought to forbid with meek and courteous speeches all manner of persons other than his appointed assistants to come near his pieces, to the end that none of his pieces may be choked, poisoned, or hurt; and he ought not for any prayers or reward to lend any piece of his gunmatch to another person, because it may be very hurtful to him in time of service to lack the same.


Also every Gunner ought to know that it is a wholesome thing for him to eat and drink a little meat before he doth discharge any piece of artillery, because the fume of saltpetre and brimstone will otherwise be hurtful to his brains, so it is very unwholesome to him to shoot in any piece of ordinance while his stomach is full.


Every Gunner which shall serve upon the sea in any ship ought before his going to sea to write with good advertisement in a paper book for the owner or captain of the vessel in which he shall serve the weight and price of so much gunpowder, and of so many fit pellets, as will be enough to charge all the pieces in his vessel forty times over, and also the price of ten barrels of more gunpowder, which he ought to have for the only making of fireworks.