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Elder
Dempster
Lines

EDL

pursers

 

The duties of seagoing Pursers staff covered all aspects of ships’ papers including crew articles and discharge books, the ship’s accounts and cash, maintenance of crew wages books, cash advances, portage bills, the ship's correspondence, crew mail, maintenance of official log books, preparation of port entry papers and liaison with port and agency officials.

The cargo side included production of detailed index books covering all outward cargo port by port, reconciliation of discharged cargo, preparation of cargo outturn reports, twice daily cargo loading statements, log conversions and log statements, preparation of all ship's manifests and allied documentation, as well as maintenance of homeward cargo loading plans and tallying of high value goods such as mail and specie.

On the mailboats (passenger liners) and those cargo ships carrying passengers they had the additional responsibilities involved with the care of the passengers, their accommodation and entertainment. This included preparation of passenger lists, passenger accounts, and the control of mail, currency and stamps. On the mailboats it also embraced circulation of the ship's daily newsletter, and the organization of deck sports, horse racing meetings and bingo sessions.

Like the other members of the seagoing staff the work required a wide range of skills, self-reliance and initiative, and the Pursers of Elder Dempster Lines set high standards and formed part of an interdependent team.

Annual salaries at 1965 were £360 for Cadet Pursers, £430 after promotion to Writer, £905 for an Assistant Purser, and from £1,200 for a Purser.

 

Ranks and Manning Levels

Pursers progressed from Cadets through to the senior Pursers on the mailboats, and in 1964 Elder Dempster Lines employed 180 Pursers. Normal crewing in the early 1960s was for a department of five or six Pursers on the mailboats, for example Purser, Extra Purser (see below) or Assistant Purser, Junior Assistant Purser, Writer, and one or two Cadet Pursers. On the cargo ships there were two Pursers, for example a Purser or Assistant Purser and a Writer.

From the mid 1960s the manning of cargo ships was reduced to one Purser (either a Purser, Assistant Purser, or a Writer) supported by one or two coastwise Writers from a pool at Freetown, or by a clerk provided by ED Agencies offices at ports on the West African coast. The various ranks of Pursers were phased out at the beginning of the 1980s, the last Purser sailing on the m.v. Dumbaia in early 1982.

 

Purser Ranks in the 1950s

Until the late 1950s the rank structure was Purser, Assistant Purser, and Purser’s Clerk. When appointed to the Aureol, Accra, and Apapa (and to the Calabar and Winneba) the senior Purser wore three rows of rank lace in common with other heads of department. Confusingly, if there was another full Purser in rank on the mailboat, junior to the Purser in charge, he would be designated the Assistant Purser or Staff Purser (see also below).

The rank lace followed the earlier style of officers of the Royal Navy. Of note is the single row of white rank lace, having been the Royal Navy rank lace for Clerks and Assistant Clerks of the Accountant Branch at the beginning of the 20th century.

Badges of Rank - Pursers - 1950s
S/Purser
Purser
A/Purser
P/Clerk
Purser
(mailboats)
Purser
Asst Purser
Purser’s Clerk

The badges of rank shown above are the gold/white rank lace displayed on the lower sleeves of the officer brass-buttoned jackets. The ranks were also displayed on the navy-blue/black epaulettes (more properly, shoulder straps) worn with tropical whites.

By the turn of the decade the rank of Writer replaced that of Purser’s Clerk, and other new ranks were established.

 

Purser Ranks in the 1960s

The late 1950s / early 1960s saw changes in the rank structure. As well as the rank of Purser’s Clerk being replaced by that of Writer a new Junior Assistant Purser rank was created, together with the introduction of Cadet Pursers. Initially Writers were graded as Senior Writer and Junior Writer, although by the mid to late 1960s the rank was that of Writer, without any separation. As previously, when appointed to the mailboats the senior Purser wore three rows of rank lace. If there was another full Purser in rank on the mailboat, junior to the Purser in charge, he would be designated Staff Purser or, later, Extra Purser (in the same style as the Deck department, where there might be a 2nd Officer and an Extra 2nd Officer).

Badges of Rank - Pursers - 1960s
S/Purser
Purser
A/Purser
A/Purser
Writer
Cdt/Purser
Purser
(mailboats)
Purser
Asst Purser
Jnr Asst Purser
Writer in Charge
unofficial
Writer
Cadet Purser

The badges of rank shown above are the gold/white rank lace displayed on the lower sleeves of the officer brass-buttoned jackets, and the Cadet Purser white turnback, gold cord and button was worn on the collar lapels. The ranks were also displayed on the navy-blue/black epaulettes (shoulder straps) worn with tropical whites. On the epaulettes of Cadet Pursers the gold cord and white department colour ran lengthwise along the epaulette.

The rank of Junior Assistant Purser had been introduced to ease problems of promotion within the Purser sea staff, a number of Senior Writers being promoted to the new rank. It is unclear if this was only intended as a temporary measure to address issues of promotion as by the mid 1960s Junior Assistant Pursers only seemed to be found on the mailboats.

By then a further difficulty had become apparent following the decision to reduce the manning of cargo ships to one Purser. Although reflecting the trust placed in the ability of individuals this situation placed a responsibility on Writers sailing single-handed (as Writer in Charge, essentially an appointment rather than a rank) that was not matched by their apparent status, and at the distance of time it has to be asked why they were not promoted to Junior Assistant Purser. With typical flair and ingenuity some Writers in Charge devised a wholely unofficial way of dealing with the situation and wore Assistant Purser epaulettes down the Coast, whilst retaining the white single row of their substantive rank of Writer on blues.

 

An Alternative Rank Structure?

Elder Dempster Lines was not unique amongst shipping companies (for example P&O and Ellerman Lines) in having the rank of Writer in their seagoing Purser departments, but from the historical perspective of similarity with the Royal Navy it is unclear why the existing rank title of Purser’s Clerk was replaced by that of Writer. The ranks of Clerk and Assistant Clerk were at one time officer ranks in the Royal Navy, and Writer being a rating (although the officer rank of Commissioned Writer formed part of the structure of Warrant Officers in the Royal Navy).

The creation of the Junior Assistant Purser had introduced what was in effect an extra rank into the structure when compared with the Deck and Engineer departments, and Assistant Pursers and Junior Assistant Pursers wore the same rank lace. A further intention might perhaps have been for these two ranks to be indicative of seniority within one rank (as for example Senior 2nd Engineer and Junior 2nd Engineer). However, the position of Writers in Charge remained unresolved.

A rank structure is not simply one of individual rank titles or of relative ranks, but also a reflection of seniority and experience. A more straightforward structure for Pursers if the rank of Purser’s Clerk was to be replaced might have been to have dropped the rank of Writer and its single white row (which was the only officer rank in Elder Dempster Lines without gold rank lace) and to have made a clear distinction between Assistant Pursers and Junior Assistant Pursers. If the Royal Navy style had been followed in the same way a precedent existed for the Junior Assistant Purser to display a narrow single row of gold lace with the white department colour. This would have had the additional effect of matching Purser ranks with those of the Deck and Engineer departments. Implementation of this would have meant that all existing Junior Assistant Pursers would have been promoted to Assistant Pursers and all Writers / Purser’s Clerks redesignated Junior Assistant Pursers.

At the same time, the anomaly of officers with the rank of Purser displaying two or three rows of rank lace depending upon the type of ship could have been removed by the introduction of the rank of Chief Purser. This rank would have been held by the senior Purser on a mailboat, retaining the three rows of rank lace that were already worn, the rank title following the precedent already established for Radio Officers (and the existing style of other officer ranks, for example Chief Engineer and Chief Steward).

Ideally cargo ships should have continued with a Purser department of two as before, but if this was to change then by extension it ought also to have been a requirement that all Pursers sailing single-handed were ranked as Purser or Assistant Purser, properly recognizing the level of responsibility carried as well as seniority. Coastwise Purser staff would still have been required, and a case could have been made to retain the title Writer for coastwise personnel, but rated as a petty officer (and still perhaps retaining the single white row of lace on the epaulettes). Another option might have been to have followed the new structure, and for the coastwise staff to be ranked as Junior Assistant Pursers (perhaps incorporating Acting rank or Temporary rank to reflect seniority and experience).

Badges of Rank - Pursers - An Alternative Structure
S/Purser
Purser
A/Purser
Jnr A/Purser
Cdt/Purser
Chief Purser
Purser
Asst Purser
Jnr Asst Purser
Cadet Purser

This is of course all supposition and proposition, but may make for an interesting "what if".

 

Elder Dempster Lines Ranks and Uniforms

An overview of the Ranks and Uniforms of Elder Dempster Lines gives more details.

 

The Diamond Debate

The wearing of the diamond is understood to denote that those officers were certificated. This point was occasionally the subject of discussion amongst crews of Elder Dempster Lines, but was decided by the style of the company’s uniform - and so Pursers wore straight lace with no diamond (although at least one example of an EDL Purser wearing the diamond has been traced). It is perhaps worth noting that when the national standard uniform for the Merchant Navy was introduced by The Mercantile Marine (Uniform) Order of September 1918 it laid down that Pursers wore the diamond.....

 

Purser
Purser
A/Purser
A/Purser
Writer
Writer
Purser
Asst Purser
Writer

 

ship

all text © Mike Ingham
purser rank photographs © Mike Ingham
purser rank images © and courtesy E C Coleman Rank and Rate
Elder Dempster Lines House Flag © Elder Dempster Lines

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this page last updated 13 January 2014

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