The Pusser and his men
By Ron Robb
This article was another distinguished entry in the 2001 Literature Prize competition.
The RAN’s Supply and Secretariat Branch has a proud and very long history. Its progenitor was the Royal Navy Supply Branch and nowadays it is an amalgam of several former specialisations. Originally, a range of people who had little to do with each other looked after food, clothing, ship’s stores, pay, legal, secretarial services and so on.
Moreover, the first Supply Officers were not commissioned officers. They were originally called ‘Paymasters’ and along with carpenters, surgeons, schoolmasters, navigators (or ‘masters’) and engineers were ‘warranted’ and classed as members of the ‘civil branches’. The Purser, in fact, wore the same uniform as the surgeons and masters in 1807. They were accorded the privilege of wardroom status, ranking in order behind lieutenants.
We tend to think of the 15th to about the 18th centuries as the great era of discovery when the globe was first circumnavigated and the ‘New World’ discovered. But the Vikings in their longboats were accomplished long distance seafarers, as were Christopher Columbus, Leif Ericsson and Amerigo Vespucci.
It has been postulated that early Briton fishermen knew about the eastern extremities of what we now call Canada. In our own time Thor Heyerdahl has demonstrated that the ancient Egyptians could have sailed to South America and the Polynesians were certainly skilled long distance navigators, who opened up vast areas of the South Pacific well over a thousand years ago. Obviously, the business of logistics at sea is not new.
The Supply Officer of Nelson’s time had no refrigeration or canned foods as we do today. One method for keeping meat was to preserve it in brine. Flour keeps well, as do dry biscuits ( ‘hard tack’ in old navy terms), but vermin control and basic storage conditions made the keeping of these staples highly problematic.
The humble potato is an excellent food and keeps well, but is a relatively recent arrival. Not many other vegetables keep for very long although dried peas and other lentils (‘pease’) were available. Captain Cook was one of the first to realise that greens are vital and reputedly made his crew eat grass from time to time. The British discovered that vitamin C was all that was needed to beat the dreadful illness of scurvy and found that limes and lemons, containing vitamin C, kept well over long voyages. That’s why the British are often referred to as ‘Limeys’.
Importance of food
Nevertheless, real difficulties were faced by the early supply officers in the Navy. A ship of ill-fed men sick from poor nutrition or grumbling about food was not a good fighting unit. Nor was food the only problem. Liquid stores such as lighting oil and turpentine could leak from their casks. Rats were notorious for chewing at anything while cockroaches and weevils abounded.
Older navy people refer to the Supply Officer as the ‘Pusser’ and, by extension, the Supply Branch as ‘the Pussers’. This comes from the fact that the Supply Officer was the one who ‘holds the purse’ so became known as the ‘Purser’. That word itself is associated with ‘bursar’, a financial office still extant in universities and some schools. The Supply Officer in the Merchant Marine and the Chief Steward aboard some aircraft are still called ‘Purser’.
Since the Supply Branch ‘owns’ everything, the term has become generally applied to the Navy. In broad usage we talk of a ‘pusser’s dirk’, meaning a seaman’s knife, or ‘pussers grey’ being the colour of Navy ships, while old hands used to call the WW II cruisers’ Supermarine Walrus amphibian a ‘Pusser’s Duck’.
The ‘Pusser’ in fact can claim one of the oldest lineages in the Navy. His direct forebear was the Ship’s Clerk, of whom we have positive identification as far back as the beginning of the 13th century in King John’s time, shortly after 1200. By 1546 when the first ‘Navy Board’ was created it included a Treasurer and a Comptroller. The Royal Navy senior supply admiral is still called ‘the Comptroller of the Navy’. (A ‘comptroller’ is simply a person who has ‘control’ of a household’s domestic affairs and financial affairs.)
In summary, then, the Supply Officer has a lineage that can be directly traced back to before there was a standing Navy. He was ‘in at the start’ when the Navy was set up as a formal armed service.
The Purser did not originally enter the navy as a cadet, or commission from the ranks. He was essentially a civilian businessman who decided on a particular way of life to make his living and contracted with the navy to provision and issue a particular ship for a set period or voyage. An unusual part of the contract was that as well as storing the vessel – he went along for the ride!
The Purser had little staff and certainly no branch or division. Like the engineers later, if he needed some working hands he’d simply borrow them from the crew, who were all seamen. He did, however, have a yeoman who rejoiced in the nickname of ‘Jack-in-the-Bread-Room’; this chap was a ‘dayman’ for duties and as such not a regular seaman. He was thus regarded with some disdain by the regular trained seamen. His official title was the ‘Purser’s Steward’ and he became the foundation of the modern Steward branch.
Establish a bond
To become a Purser, an applicant would be required to put up a bond to the Admiralty and the size of the bond would determine the size of ship he could provision. For a first rate ship-of-the-line he would need some £1200, a huge sum in the 18th century and easily the equivalent of someone ‘floating his all’ on some business venture today. For a small ship, such as a frigate, a bond of about £400 would suffice to get him into the business (though even that in those days £400 was a sobering investment). Since he made most of his money by the amount of goods he turned over it is obvious that a big ship would be a big money spinner.
Interestingly, although the Purser eventually became a full naval officer, the concept of a civilian storeman continued for many years, until just recently, even in the RAN. All except the small ships carried a civilian canteen manager, sometimes with a small civilian staff, even in wartime. This explains why some crew lists in the appendices of books about famous ships might carry a few civilian names.
Nowadays, modern accounting methods and computers make storing a ship a fairly scientific business. But in Nelson’s day the ‘Pusser’ faced a daunting task and a brief glance at his job may give us a new respect for some of those earlier seagoing storemen.
Good business acumen
The Purser needed very good business acumen and precise regulations also governed his affairs. The Old Navy was victualled and stored to scales and standards (which still exist – though much updated) set by the Navy Victualling Committee. Ships were supplied from the Board’s warehouses from whence supplies were moved to the Purser in tons but eventually set on tables by him in ounces. A paymaster had to be a skilled mathematician to start with. But the job didn’t end there because rats, mice, weevils and other vermin, heat spoilage, leakage, sharp contractors, pilfering and so on all added to the unpredictability of his task.
The Purser was also known as ‘the eighth man’. This had nothing to do with his position in some pecking order but everything to do with the fact that he made much of his commission by being allowed 12½ per cent ‘wastage’ from his stores (although for tobacco and clothing, the latter being called ‘slops’, the commission was 10 per cent for the former and 5 per cent for the latter). The line between legitimate economy on his part, as against economy on the Admiralty’s part, coupled with generosity (leading to good morale) on one hand with parsimony and fraud on the other, was a difficult and narrow path.
Profit and loss
Walking that line successfully meant the difference between comfortable old age or bankruptcy. Ever hovering in the background was the wrath of an all powerful captain, if the ship did not have its necessary fighting and sailing provisions or the crew suffered ill health or poor morale.
The Purser was of the same standing as the other ‘civil branches’. In pay he equated to the carpenter, gunner and boatswain: £4 (about $8 in modern Australian terms) a month on a first class ship down to £2 per month on a sixth rate vessel. The attraction of the job came in the 12½ per cent commission, plus, at the end of the year or commission, an Admiralty bonus equal to several months’ salary, if his accounts balanced.
There was one other source of income apart from the commission and the wastage allowance. Most Pursers engaged in the illegal practice of issuing only 14 oz for every 16 oz pound. It was accepted practice, and the Admiralty turned a blind eye to it, because the alternative was to raise the Purser’s salary or commission. One of the demands of the 1797 Spithead mutiny was ‘that our provisions be raised to 16 ounces in the pound and our measures be the same as used in commercial trade in this country’.
A seaman’s ration from the Purser for a week may be of some interest. First, he was allowed a kilo of bread (a little over two pounds). A modern sliced loaf weighs about 680 g, so the seaman’s weekly ration was roughly equivalent to about 3.24 modern standard sliced loaves. He was also entitled to a gallon of beer (4.5 litres) per day.
However, the ‘bread’ was in reality ‘hard tack’ and likely to be dry, hard, dusty and full of weevils. The beer was notoriously wish-washy and very weak, at best water with some hops floating around in it and has given us the term ‘small beer’. Unlike rum, it certainly presented no problems from drunkenness. Each week, spread over different days, a sailor would be issued with 4 kg (10 lb) of salt beef, 2 kg of salt pork, 2 pints (a shade over a litre) of pease (dried lentils), 3 pints of oatmeal, 6 oz (170 gm) of butter (often rancid), and 12 oz of cheese (likewise).
Variations were possible and in place of one of the beef issues a man could have some flour, suet and currants to vary the menu with a little ‘duff’. And, of course, the daily rum issue! That was it.
Each mess had a rostered seaman mess ‘cook’. He didn’t cook, but organised the pooled victuals to be delivered to the ship’s cook at a central galley (with a wood- or coal-fired stove and oven) for processing. Incidentally, the cook’s mate was known as ‘Jack Nastyface’ and a very famous 19th century book by that name gives us a good insight into American naval life at that time.
Today, we might grizzle if our navy meals are not ‘cordon-bleu’ but the Supply Officer of Nelson’s day would be flabbergasted to see today’s sailor at his meals. Not even the landlubbers in wealthy homes then would dream of what ordinary sailors now take for granted. Each day they tuck into three or more well planned, nutritious and attractive meals, virtually without a second thought. Many of the foods we have in today’s navy were unheard of before the 19th century. Modern principles of nutrition and presentation were only vaguely understood.
By the turn of the 20th century, refrigeration was becoming available in ships at sea while food preserved in cans and bottles were common. The Surgeon began to take some of the responsibility off the Supply Officer for the planning of properly balanced meals. Specific training for catering staffs was established and the cook became a professional rather than some seaman lumbered with the job.
Food and pay were not the only concerns of the Purser. The Admiralty also required him to provide coal (originally for fires, not engines), wood (for both burning and repairs), lighting oil, candles, lanterns, sails, rope, and the myriad of consumable items needed by a fighting vessel at sea.
Today, the Supply Officer and his staff have shelves full of reference books, regulations and guides to assist them in efficiently controlling their empire. The Old Navy Purser had some guidance but it tended to be fairly broad and the old Supply Instructions were geared more to protecting the profitability and integrity of His Majesty’s naval stores than making the Purser’s job easier.
The Supply Branch also issues uniforms. Here a skirt is checked for fit in Balmoral during WW II.
For the Supply Officers of Nelson’s Navy a privately produced publication entitled A Treatise on the Office of Purser appeared in the very year of 1778 that Captain Phillip established a British colony on the east coast of ‘Terra Australis’. The author was ‘An old-established Officer in that line in His Majesty’s Navy’.
This valuable publication contained over 200 pages and gave useful information to new Pursers for many years on ‘how to avoid being cast into debt’. It listed many handy warnings about vermin control, checking stores as they came in from contractors, storing procedures and how to thwart skullduggery by sharp practices in foreign ports. The instructions included tips on how to argue effectively with Navy Victualling Yards after a long voyage when stores were being returned to shore, plus many other pieces of advice, including how to present sound accounts in accordance with Admiralty policy.
When the Purser found stores that had gone bad or rotten (a common occurrence) he had to seek permission to write them off and get a bill of attestation for settling accounts with the Admiralty. These bills were not issued lightly and normally required a survey board of three officers, from another ship or ships in company where possible. The concept of a properly convened board of survey by independent officers for writing-off stores still exists today.
Pay and entitlements
Navy regulations for the protection of a sailor’s pay were rather good for their day. Since there were no air mail, radio or satellite computer services to amend a sailor’s pay documents regularly, methods were established for his wife (or parents) to be able to draw on his pay at designated Navy pay offices so that they could attend to his domestic affairs. Creditors were always trying to get their hands on Jack’s pay and some quite ingenious methods were in place to ensure that Jack was not unduly ‘seen off’.
Dead man’s kit auction
The Purser became by common consent and tradition the general ship’s Executor to all and sundry so that in the event of a man’s death (by no means uncommon at sea in those days) the ‘Pusser’ organised an auction of the man’s clothes and effects. Buyers could bid on credit and have the charge made against their pay. The Purser was allowed to keep five pounds for every hundred made but had the responsibility of getting the proceeds and any heirloom effects and cash to the next-of-kin on the ship’s return to her home port.
By 1886 a ‘Fleet Paymaster’, wearing three stripes and having at least 12 years seniority, had been established in the RN. The ‘Staff Paymaster’ required at least six years seniority and wore the modern LCDR stripes and an ‘Assistant Paymaster’ wore two stripes, or one if he had less than six years seniority . Clerks wore one thin stripe. This was the forerunner to the later commissioned warrant officer who disappeared in 1956 to be reintroduced more recently as a non-commissioned, but still warranted, officer.
At the top of the pile was a Paymaster-in-Chief, who wore four stripes. Also, the white velvet distinguishing cloth between the gold stripes, now gone, was introduced (at one time it was proposed to make the colour yellow).
On the lower deck, a supply sailor branch began to emerge. The Writer was first and was formally established in 1867. The branch was given a distinguishing badge, the Supply Star. At first, Writers and Stewards wore a gold star and Cooks a silver one.
Initially, there were three classes of Writer, all of Chief Petty Officer status, messing with the Master at Arms and Schoolmaster. But almost immediately the Admiralty had difficulty recruiting men with sufficient education, so in 1873 a new rate was introduced: Boy Writer. They were entered almost exclusively from the Greenwich School and specifically trained there in ‘the three Rs’ for the purpose of handling the Navy’s business affairs.
In 1866, savings banks managed by the Supply Officers were set up in seagoing ships.
The RAN cookery branch will be interested to know that the first RN cookery officer, one Alphonso Jago, had a direct link with the RAN. He was born in 1875 and joined the RN at 16 as a ‘Boy – Domestic’. He obviously was fairly bright because he quickly worked his way up the ladder, becoming a commissioned warrant instructor in cookery at the Portsmouth RN School of Cookery. (Prior to 1895 cookery instruction had been in charge of civilian staff.)
In 1900-03 he was the China Fleet lightweight boxing champ, taking that title while serving on the Australia station in 1904. Jago eventually became a Lieutenant in 1925, an unheard-of achievement for a cook in those days.
The faces and uniforms change, but the job remains essentially the same. Messing in WW I (left) and WWII.
He wrote the first Manual of Naval Cookery, published in 1925, and that manual stood until 1974. Jago did not invent but was primarily responsible for popularising the ‘General Messing’ system of food purchase and preparation from 1921, although the concept had been trialled in HMS Dreadnought before WW I. It is interesting to note that it is only in the last few years that the RAN finally adopted the system for its wardrooms.
Supply Branch valour
Finally, the Supply Branch has plenty of its own heroes. In WW II some of its members led lives more exciting and stranger than fiction. Paymaster Commander Eric Nave was Australia’s and, indeed, one of the world’s top WW II code breakers. Others were famous as members of the New Guinea Coastwatchers. Any general history of the RAN in both wartime and peace will have some mention of Paymasters, Writers, Cooks and other Supply Branch personnel who exhibited uncommon valour or devoted unusual service under fire and in emergency.
VADM Hickling noted some heroic acts by Supply Branch personnel during that dreadful night in 1964 when HMAS Melbourne collided with HMAS Voyager. Leading Cook Manser, for instance, left his wardroom galley in Melbourne, jumped over the side and, with three other sailors, boarded an inflatable liferaft and paddled it to the wreckage of Voyager, about 200 yards away. They pulled aboard four survivors when Mancer dived overboard yet again to drag an injured or shocked survivor into the raft. “He was only in the nick of time; two minutes more and the man would have drowned,” said Hickling (1965, p 44).
The foregoing has been but a brief description of the background of the branch that keeps the Navy fed, clothed and fighting. To cover the subject in detail would require a full scale book but surprisingly, although one exists for the RN, no major work has been published about the RAN Supply Branch. There is, therefore, a fascinating task awaiting some budding ‘White Mafia’ Naval historian.
Golding, H. (Ed), The Wonder Book of the Navy. Ward-Lock & Co: London, 1926.
Hickling, H. One minute of time. A.H and A.W. Reed: Sydney, 1965.
May, W.E. (Ed), Badges and Insignia of the British Armed Services (Navy). St Martin’s Press: New York, 1974.
Pope, D. Life in Nelson’s Navy. Allen & Unwin: London, 1981.
Robinson, W. Jack nastyface: Memoirs of an English seaman. London: Weyland 1973 (First published as Nautical economy in 1836.)
Warlow, B. The Pusser and His Men. Royal Navy: Devon, 1984.