John Laing Collection: Breaking New Ground
John Laing was a company that profoundly shaped post-war Britain. It constructed the country’s first major motorway, built outstanding sites of worship such as Coventry Cathedral, and created buildings which housed innovative forms of technology such as Berkeley Nuclear Power Station.
Throughout the lifespan of the company, photographers captured sites being built; these pictures now form the John Laing Photographic Collection. The photos provide a unique insight into the origins of iconic British buildings as well as the new modes of living they initiated. They exhibit a true kaleidoscope of British people, places and progress.
Breaking New Ground was a 21-month project supported by the John Laing Charitable Trust to make available 10,000 images from the John Laing Photographic Collection.
A short history of John Laing
The John Laing building company began in 1848 when James Laing (born 1816), his wife Ann and some employees built a single house in Carlisle. They sold it for £175 (around £17,000 today) which allowed them to build two more houses. From these humble beginnings the company grew.
Before the Second World War the now formed John Laing building company built more homes and received significant government contracts. The business expanded to include ventures in Britain and overseas in investments, technology and even mining. They built the Middlesex County Hospital, office blocks, pumping stations, power stations, and an army camp.
By the Second World War the fifth generation of Laings were with the company. John Laing remained a family business until 2001 when the construction side that started it all was sold after 156 years of building.
A family business for five generations
Building post-war Britain
After the Second World War with John Laing now based in London and with regional offices all over the country, modern Britain was being shaped through a visionary building programme.
From the hardships of war the nation reached for a new modern world, for motorways, for bridges, for new schools and houses, for nuclear power stations, for the white heat of technology.
Constructing our modern world
John Laing pioneered Easiform, a non-traditional form of house construction, enabling thousands of new homes to be built quickly.
The company was responsible for building much of the new town Milton Keynes; power stations like Sizewell B; the Second Severn Crossing; hospitals and schools all across England; the British Library; modern office blocks like the CIS Tower in Manchester (then the tallest inhabited building in Europe).
As well as rebuilding the Coventry Cathedral, they also built a Mormon temple, a mosque and redeveloped a synagogue.
There was no part of British life that John Laing were not associated with constructing. Everyone’s lives were touched in some way by Laing’s work, and as the images show, these projects were often rebuilt and shaped by ordinary men and women.
The need to construct these buildings was motivated by the changing lifestyle patterns of postwar citizens, including marked increases in leisure time and an upsurge in disposable income and wealth.
Some of the less famous, but no less important, undertakings of the Laing company were the multiple car parks, sewage works, shopping malls and holiday villages constructed after the 1950s.
Some of the people who worked for John Laing and built some of Britain’s most iconic buildings share their stories in the video below.
Team spirit: the John Laing family trips
During a period of incredible growth for the company, the business focused on the care of their staff, there were welfare officers, site nurses on big projects and in the photos you can see the pioneering changes in health and safety that they supported, from flat-caps to hard hats.
The John Laing Photographic Collection also gives us insight into work and play in the lives of the workers and their families.
Laing men are like Blackpool rock; if you cut them open they’ve got Laing running through their veins.
Influenced by the religious attitudes of its founder, Sir John Laing, who was part of the Plymouth Brethren, the company had enlightened attitudes towards its staff for the time, with a strong focus on family values.
It arranged company away days, events and trips to the seaside for the families of its workers. Photographs were taken to record these events for the company’s ‘Team Spirit’ in-house newsletter, published from 1946-2001.
Company events and outings
Celebrities and celebrations: a quirky collection
John Laing believed in building people and communities, as well as material structures.
Whilst working in Hackney in the 80s they created work schemes for young unemployed men, and in some of the more curious images of the collection you can see they sponsored bands, events and even a few well-known faces.
Unquestionably, there is something in this collection for everyone.
Sponsored bands and famous faces
Breaking New Ground: the project
Breaking New Ground was a 21-month project supported by the John Laing Charitable Trust to make available online 10,000 images from the John Laing Photographic Collection, offering a unique insight into the building of post-war Britain. The project conserved, catalogued and digitised the images and made them freely available in the Historic England Archive online.
Over the course of the project, the Breaking New Ground Trainee Programme ensured that the skills needed to do this work were passed on to a new generation. The project funding from John Laing Charitable Trust and Historic England paid for three trainee positions, a Cataloguer Trainee, a Conservator Trainee and an Imaging Technician Trainee.
There’s always help on hand, there’s a lot of people with different specialisms. It’s quite a nurturing environment. I have a lot more experiences that I can draw upon when applying for opportunities in the sector.
A national engagement programme involved four primary schools, over 150 key stage two pupils and eight ex-Laing workers, with a further four ex-Laing workers taking part in filmed accounts. This resulted in free education resources focused on housing and places of worship for teachers and students to access online.
It was very fun because I got to speak to one of the builders of Laing and see how they worked and what conditions they worked in.
We interviewed some people that worked for John Laing and it was very interesting because we got to hear some people talking about the rebuild of Coventry Cathedral.