The “Round” In History: Rules, Comradeship, National Security and Venereal Disease
Caught in a “round” system, drinkers can either find unwanted pints of beer stacking up in front of them like a firing squad, or sit around resentfully staring at their empty glass as the one whose turn it is next nurses their beer. The former always used to happen between a group of us at a rural pub in County Antrim called The Wayside, so that the unstarted pints stacked in front of the slower drinkers at the end of the evening were described as a “Wayside Pile-up”.
The rules of the round can be more complicated and applied more restrictively than a newcomer might think. “Rules are rules”, say people with no imagination. Sometimes exceptions and “sitting out” may not be permitted: you may not refuse my generosity nor deny me yours.
There was a particularly strict attitude in certain pubs in my homeland, where I was once told a story of a visiting Englishman who didn’t automatically get a full round, but instead would ask each of his colleagues if they fancied another one. Quiet offence was initially taken, but he was not to blame – as it was explained to me by the self-appointed pub anthropologist – that was just what English people did.
The Edwardian equivalent of the Wayside Pile-up was regarded as nothing less than a threat to national efficiency and, therefore, wartime security. Rounds were banned by “No-Treating” provisions made under the Defence Of The Realm Act in 1915 and revoked on 4 June 1919 (“and it is generally expected that this date will be made an annual, public holiday in Scotland” – Punch). Lloyd George attributed an initial reduction in drunkenness convictions to the effect of the Order.
There’s a great example of the application of the No-Treating Order in a 1916 newspaper article here, where a sailor buying a round of drinks and the Cardiff landlord he bought it from were both prosecuted. The landlord’s silk raised an interesting argument in his defence:
Mr Lewis Thomas K.C., for the landlord, said that the real reason for the order was to hit the person treating, and the person who was treated. Supposing, said counsel, he and his friend, Mr. Whitely (appearing with him), before going into a hotel formed a joint-stock company and contributed 6d. each, and he went in and paid for two bottles of Bass. (Laughter.) If then his friend drank one there would be no offence.
The Lord Chief Justice: You don’t say really that, when going in to take refreshments, you form a joint-stock company in which you each contribute half of what is going to be spent?
Mr Thomas: It depends on the confidence you have in each other.
The Glasgow Herald reported in March 1944 on calls from the Moderator of the Church of Scotland for a No-Treating Order to be brought in during World War 2:
Many attempts, he said, had been made to get the Government to pass such an order, but so far without result. He for one thought it was too soon yet to give up the battle – and he believed it was also in the mind of the Church he represented – to bring further pressure to bear on the Government in this matter. There was no doubt that inebriation, immorality, and the incidence of venereal disease were very closely related to each other, and that it was difficult to deal with those problems separately.
The last point reveals what appears to be behind many for the calls to ban “treating” in 1944: a desire to prevent men buying women drinks in an attempt to arouse their affections, rather than simply to prevent groups of workers “getting a round in”. The same point was raised by Viscountess Astor in the House of Commons in the same month:
Does not the right hon. Gentleman consider that something ought to be done to relieve the anxiety of people who are deeply worried about the treating of young girls in public houses? Would not a no-treating order help in this very important matter?
As far as I’m aware, the “round” currently escapes any blame in the ongoing debate about alcohol and public health, as the arguments are generally restricted to pricing, duty, measures, ABV and age. Perhaps it is because pubs are now thought of as a preferable, supervised drinking environment.
Or perhaps it is acknowledged that the system is one of those long-standing British traditions born of an obsession with rules and fair play, along with cricket, grammatical pedantry, writing outraged letters to broadsheet newspapers and queuing. Furthermore, the general ability of men to buy women drinks doesn’t just spread VD, but rather is pretty much essential for the British to procreate at all.