The purser joined the warrant officer ranks of the Royal Navy in the early fourteenth century. The development of the warrant officer system began in 1040 when five English ports began furnishing warships to King Edward the Confessor in exchange for certain privileges, they also furnished crews whose officers were the Master, Boatswain, Carpenter and Cook. Later these officers were "warranted" by the British Admiralty. They maintained and sailed the ships and were the standing officers of the navy, staying with the ships in port between voyages as caretakers supervising repairs and refitting.
In charge of supplies such as food and drink, clothing, bedding, candles, the purser was originally known as "the clerk of burser." The purser was not actually in charge of pay, but of necessity had to track it closely, since the crew had to pay for all their supplies, and it was the purser's job to deduct those expenses from their wages. The purser bought everything (except food and drink) on credit, acting almost as a private merchant. In addition to his official responsibilities, it was customary for the purser to act as a literal private merchant for luxuries such as tobacco, and to be the crew's banker.
As a result, the purser was always at risk of losing money and being thrown into debtor's prison; conversely, the crew and officers habitually suspected the purser of making an illicit profit out of his complex dealings. However, very few pursers became wealthy from their dealings; although there were wealthy pursers, it was due to side businesses facilitated by their ships' travels.
On modern-day passenger ships, the purser has evolved into a multi-person office that handles general administration, fees and charges, currency exchange, and any other money-related needs of the passengers and crew. The book The Purser portrays the daily life of a ship's purser aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Some of the duties the purser in the narrative performs include: evaluating passenger comment sheets, accompanying passengers on visits to the ship’s bridge, issuing identification cards for new crew members, and attending formal events such as the captain’s welcome aboard dinner and the renewal of wedding vows.
The Chief Purser often holds a rank equivalent to that of the Chief Officer (and wears the same three rank rings).