The British-English colloquial phrase to go (all) round the houses means to get to the point in a lengthy or roundabout way, from its literal sense, to take an unnecessarily circuitous route to one’s destination—synonym: to go round Robin Hood’s barn.
In the earliest instance that I have found, from the column Observations, by John Blunt, published in The Bucks Herald (Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire) of Friday 9th July 1943, the quotation marks indicate that, although the author uses the phrase literally, he alludes to its figurative sense:
I am told that for several weeks the notice near the Clock Tower in Aylesbury Market Square, directing Service people to the Church Army canteen in Walton Street, has been pointing up the Square instead of down.
Please, somebody, put it the right way round, before I go “all round the houses” to get there.
Likewise, in the second-earliest instance that I have found, from The Luton News and Bedfordshire Advertiser (Luton, Bedfordshire) of Thursday 28th January 1954, the author played on the figurative and literal meanings of all round the houses:
All Round The Houses
As well as being provocative, the speeches made in debate by members of Luton Town Council sometimes are evocative.
One on Tuesday night, for instance, evoked (indeed invoked) thoughts of Government policy, political strategy, the relations between the party in power at Westminster and the party in power at the Town Hall, public agitation as a means of reinforcing deputations to Whitehall, and the expulsion of two aldermen from the Labour Party at Colchester.
No prizes are offered to those who can deduce from this what the Council was talking about: although a successful effort certainly would merit some reward.
The subject under discussion was housing, but the same claptrap could equally well be applied to almost anything else (and at future meetings most certainly will be).
This frolic all round the houses started with the news that the Ministry has severely cut the Corporation’s building programme.
This will upset, in favour of the man who builds his own house, the ratio of private houses to council houses.
In The Stage (London) of Thursday 12th November 1992, Maureen Paton Maguire used an extended form, all round the houses and twice round the gasworks, in her review of Obsession, by Douglas McFerran (misspelt McFarran in the article), staged at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC):
The structure of Douglas McFarran’s new play owes an obvious debt to Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. We first meet Yuppie couple Nick and Nina (as opposed to Nick and Nora) when they are having a furious row about his infidelity. She casts the usual aspersions upon his legitimacy on the first of 14 short scenes that take us to the end and then back to the beginning of their protracted on-off affair.
McFarran, however, lacks the clarity of Pinter and cannot resist pressing the rewind and fast-forward buttons at random. The result is that you feel as if you have been all round the houses and twice round the gasworks with his somewhat unrewarding relationship.
Table manners – Douglas Hodge and Tessa Peake Jones in Obsession at BAC. Picture: Tristram Kenton
The Stage – 12th November 1992