A Brief History Of Round Table

The History of Round Table in England

When he opened the British industries Fair in 1927 the Prince of Wales used the words:

“The young business and professional men of this country must get together round the table, adopt methods that have proved so sound in the past, adapt them to the changing needs of the time and, whenever possible, improve them.”

In that same year a young member of the Rotary Club of Norwich, Louis Marchesi took steps to meet the need of many young business and professional men who were unable to join Rotary because of the lack of vacancies in the particular organisation. There was clearly room for an organisation similar to Rotary, but which admitted only young men.

Louis Marchesi, therefore, got together around the table with a small group of young men at Suckling House in Norwich in March 1927 and formed the first Round Table. Fortunately, his vision was matched by the wisdom of Rotary in Britain which, far from trying to suppress what could have been regarded as a rival concern, gave official blessing to the project at its national conference at Harrogate in May 1928.

It can be seen that the name “Round Table” was chosen by our founders without any intention of calling to mind the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. In fact, it was not until 1929 that the present Round Table badge was adopted, portraying as it does the historic round table. A replica of this table was carried on the Union Castle liner “Winchester Castle” and was presented to the Association of Round Tables of Southern Africa by the Director when this old vessel was sent to the ship breakers in 1961.

It is now in the custody of the East London Round Table. The prime mover in this presentation was our first Association President, Noggs Newman.

The History of Round Table in Southern Africa

Again it was a Rotarian who launched Round Table in South Africa. Dr David Smith had been a Round Tabler in Bath, England, but after the war, he settled in East London and joined the local Rotary Club. As Chairman of the Club’s Youth Service Committee, he received in 1948 a letter from the International Extension Officer of Round Table of Great Britain and Ireland (RTBI). The letter sought the support of Rotary for the extension of Round Table into Southern Africa, but although David Smith was himself immediately fired with enthusiasm Rotary did not at first give its official backing to the idea.  David was himself below the 40 year age barrier and his vigour and enthusiasm were reflected in the first East London Table established in November 1948.

The First Project In Southern Africa

They immediately tackled an enormous project – the collection over a three-year period of a sum of R36000 for the building in East London of a tuberculosis settlement. Within two years this figure was exceeded, and Round Table very quickly made its mark as a dynamic force in the sphere of community service in Southern Africa. 

Tabling in Southern Africa Begins To Grow

In November 1950, a second Round Table was established in Durban and about that time David Smith contributed an article on Round Table to a Rotary Publication. This made a great impression, and Rotary throughout South Africa gave full support from that time. Table No.3 was inaugurated in Johannesburg, in January 1951, and in that year an Association of Round Tables in South Africa was established. The first National Conference of the Association was held in East London in 1951 and from that time extension was rapid and spectacular – eleven new Tables in 1953 and fourteen in 1955, including two in what was then South West Africa (Namibia).

Following the independence of South West Africa in 1990 and the change of name of the newly independent country to Namibia, the Tablers of Namibia decided to remain within the existing Association. During 1994 Lesotho officially became part of the Association, with the re-chartering of a Table in Maseru (They had previously been part of ARTCA – Association of Round Tables in Central Africa).  During 2002 Swaziland officially became part of the Association.

The History of Round Table International

Prior to the Second World War, Round Table grew steadily in Britain and spread to Copenhagen in 1936.  Immediately after the war, there was a great surge of interest and expansion.  Not only did the number of Tables in Britain itself increase rapidly, but, as Europe recovered from the war, so was Round Table extended to the remainder of Scandinavia and throughout the Continent.  

By 1947 the concept of an Association called Round Table International had been approved by RTBI and as we have seen, in 1948 David Smith brought Round Table to South Africa.

These developments made Round Table International a more important association and the principle of the unification and integration of Round Table on a worldwide basis was accepted by the Annual General Meeting of the British Association in 1953.  On 19th May 1955, a new Constitution for Round Table International took effect and RTI became the central governing body of Round Table throughout the world.  In 1958 Hugh White, then an immediate past President of ARTSA, was elected to the vice-presidency of the International Association.  Although the Round Table Associations in Africa were full members of RTI, from its inception a fact that was recognised in Hugh White’s election to high office – it was essentially a European Association. 

The Annual General Meetings were held in Europe for there was no central fund from which the delegate’s travelling expense could be met.  ARTSA could not at that time give any financial assistance to its own representatives and so its participation in the all-important annual conference depended upon the fortuitous presence on one or two members of ARTSA who might be in Europe at the right time.  Until 1960 RTI, represented Round Table on World Could but it was then decided that each Association should be represented on a reconstituted World Council of Young Men’s Service Clubs (more about WOCO can be found in Chapter 14) and this move saw the disbanding of RTI


ARTSA does not form part of an international movement. It is a separate autonomous association merely affiliated to the international body.  In 1991 at the WOCO AGM in Austria, Round Table International was reconstituted and ARTSA became a member also of this body. One of the major factors in reconstituting this body was that over the previous few years WOCO was pressurised into changing its’ membership criteria and at this time had extended its’ age limit to 45 and allowed the introduction of ladies into its’ membership. The Round Table movement believed strongly in maintaining its’ membership criteria and hence reformed RTI which has as its’ membership criteria kept to the men only and 40 year age limit. Initially, the RTI board was made up of a President and Vice President, who held office for one year, however, at the RTI Annual General Meeting held in Panama in 1997, it was decided to do away with the position of Vice President and have the President as the sole member of the board.  The President now holds the position for a minimum period of two years.

Since then a few European Associations have raised concerns about having dual membership of RTI and WOCO.   Some of them have subsequently resigned their direct membership of WOCO and remained members of RTI.  The RTI president at WOCO meetings, therefore, represents them.