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The "no treating" orders of WWI: control in crises

The "no treating" orders of WWI: control in crises

John MacKenzie


Reading time: four minutes

Picture a bustling London pub in 1915. What you might not consider is that buying your friend a drink could land you in trouble with a constable. During World War one (WWI), the British government introduced the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA). This emergency legislation and its various amendments created a series of regulations, providing broad powers to bolster Britain’s national security.

Among these was the "no treating" law, aimed at curbing alcohol consumption among workers and soldiers to bolster the war effort. In this article, I shall explore how this peculiar law illustrates broader themes of control and morale during times of crisis, how the law can change in an emergency and what we can learn from history. 

I first heard of these “no treating” orders from my father. His understanding was that this was a ban across the nation on buying rounds, acting as a prohibition on reaching into one’s pocket to buy a friend a drink in a pub.  

The legal landscape of "no treating"

Historically, the concept of "treating" and prohibition has been associated with electoral fraud, where candidates would entice voters with food and drink. As WWI dragged on, maintaining productivity and morale on the home front became as crucial as victories on the battlefield. Alarmed by reports of decreased output and drunkenness of servicemen, the government introduced the "no treating" regulations. “No treating orders” would seemingly prohibit individuals from buying drinks for others, at risk of up to six months’ imprisonment, and were part of a broader initiative that included restricted pub opening hours and price controls on alcohol. The aim was straightforward: reduce alcohol consumption, prevent absenteeism and maintain the requisite industrial output essential for war supplies.

Introducing such measures, and policing culturally ingrained social interactions in public spaces, brought the government into murky waters. These measures were met with indignation and cunning resistance. Patrons and pub owners devised creative workarounds, while others grumbled about the intrusion into their social habits. Debates in Parliament indicated public frustration and questions over the effectiveness of such policies, like those brought forth by Captain R. Terrell to the Home Secretary Mr Shortt, as shown in Hansard’s archive content. I’d recommend that you read the Hansard reports, particularly older ones – I found this exchange quite humorous:

Mr. Raper – Is the right honourable gentleman aware that this unnecessary legislation is causing a great deal of dissatisfaction in the country?

Mr. Shortt – I have no information.

Mr. Lunn – Does this order apply in the House of Commons?

Mr. Shortt – I think not.

Broader implications and unintended consequences

A further search in Hansard reveals other references to “no treating”. One Commons debate from 30 March 1944 queried the extent and effect of these restrictions. According to Herbert Morrison, then Home Secretary, there was “no general order prohibiting treating throughout the country”. He elaborates that such orders were regionally and functionally quite limited and repealed shortly after WWI. As such, it seems there was never a nationwide blanket ban on the cultural cornerstone of buying rounds! I enjoyed an aside in that 1944 report, from Sir Wayland, who asked: “Does not the present price of beer prevent drunkenness?” Some 80 years on and we have not changed much. 

While limited in scope on its own, “no treating” orders were part of a larger framework of wartime regulations. “The Carlisle Experiment” saw the government taking control of breweries and pubs in certain areas. Various other DORA regulations also had a significant effect on the relationship between the state and its citizens. These laws sought not merely to control alcohol consumption but, in many cases, to adapt public behaviour to suit wartime demands. This intrusion into personal life sparked a debate about government overreach that resonates even today.


When we read about these “no treating” orders and other wartime regulations, we might see a government trying its best to grapple with unprecedented challenges. While, on the one hand, some such laws can be seen as overreaching, these laws were an attempt to mobilise a nation in the face of dire emergency. These laws offer a window into the past, revealing how societal norms and legal frameworks interact under pressure.

Laws such as these illustrate the complexities of legal responses to crises. These historical oddities should encourage you to consider how the law might reflect or shape societal values and the balance of state regulation and personal freedoms. 

Consider the following questions:

  • How do we balance individual freedoms with the needs of a society, especially during crises?
  • What lessons can we draw from historical laws that might inform our responses to contemporary challenges?
  • In what ways do the laws of the past still impact our perceptions of state authority and personal liberty?

Hopefully this blog has served both as an entertaining history lesson, and also educated you on how the law can change, sometimes quite drastically and rapidly, to face pressing challenges. Perhaps it should also be a reminder of how word-of-mouth might trivialise or oversimplify the way we understand the law and history.

If you are interested in other historical legal oddities, I’ve previously written on the hyper-local Scots common law concerning the “Kindly Tenants of Lochmaben”.