Earth being tipped into the central reservation of the M1 motorway by dumper truck.

Workers constructing the central reservation of the M1 motorway © Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/14/00020
Workers constructing the central reservation of the M1 motorway © Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/14/00020

From Flat Caps To Hard Hats: Breaking New Ground

Previously unseen images of Britain’s construction history released to mark the launch of 'Breaking New Ground'.

Today Historic England and the John Laing Charitable Trust announce the launch of 'Breaking New Ground' – a 21-month project that explores the history of constructing modern Britain through the John Laing Photographic Collection.

Held by the Historic England Archive, the Collection contains over 230,000 images which chart this major British company’s work over the last century. It offers an unparalleled insight into the origins of iconic British buildings, the construction of important national infrastructure projects and the increasing professionalism of the construction industry over the course of the 20th century.

The entire project will include:

  • Digitising 10,000 images from the John Laing Photographic Collection, which the public will be able to access through the Historic England website.
  • Nationwide public engagement - Ex-Laing construction workers will share their experiences with local schoolchildren using the Collection’s photographs as talking points.
  • Creating oral histories and education materials for schools – to help teachers engage their pupils with the history of their local buildings.
  • A short film entitled “Making Modern Britain” which will explore the Collection and the stories behind the images.
A Laing stonemason chiselling stonework around a stained glass window.
A Laing stonemason working on the restoration of the east window at Carlisle Cathedral, chiselling stonework prior to bonding a new piece of stone to the existing fabric. © Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/10/13959

Origins of the John Laing Photographic Collection

Laing was originally established in 1848 as a building company based in Carlisle, in the North West of England by James Laing. It grew to become a major construction company in the United Kingdom and internationally. In 1953, John Laing and Son (Holdings) Ltd was listed on the London Stock Exchange, and worked on major construction projects as diverse as the M1 motorway, Sizewell B nuclear power station and Coventry Cathedral, ceasing its construction work in 2002.

Workmen straightening the steel reinforcement rods underneath the bottom of the dome of the pressure vessel during the construction of Berkeley Nuclear Power Station.
Workmen straightening the steel reinforcement rods after the bottom of the dome of the pressure vessel had been winched into position within the thermal shield during the construction of Berkeley Nuclear Power Station © Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/01/077/30

Throughout the last century, the company employed photographers to capture its work. As a consequence, the Collection includes striking and unique photographs of some of Britain’s most significant infrastructure projects and public buildings.

Photographs in the Collection also provide a record of social history, showing Laing’s caring and progressive attitude towards its staff and its work. John Laing started work with his father’s company in 1894 at the age of 14, eventually building it into one of Britain’s largest construction firms. He was member of the Plymouth Brethren and sought to provide inclusive company spirit for his employees, arranging various outings and occasions for staff including regular company sports days and “family days” to the seaside.

Members of Laing's sports club waving from a river boat.
Members of Laing's sports club taking a trip on the River Thames near Windsor, on a boat named the Windsor Castle. © Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/08/087579

Sharing experiences: pensioners, schoolchildren, local communities

Ex-Laing employees who constructed of some of the company’s biggest projects will bring the photographs to life by sharing their experiences with younger generations in schools’ workshops.

This autumn, workshops have taken place in Swindon and Bristol with further workshops planned for primary schools in London, Coventry and Carlisle.

Local pensioner John McGuinness was a cost surveyor with Laing from 1960, and worked on Easiform housing developments. Following the Swindon workshop at Goddard Park primary school, McGuinness said:

As someone who trained with Laing and later worked on a wide range of sites in various roles, I am delighted to have taken part in this project. The sites I worked on with Laing ranged from brick and concrete housing to projects including the London Central Mosque, and the British Library. I hope the workshop gave the children insight into the urgent housing shortages in the 1950s and 1960s after the Second World War, and the new and innovative methods of house construction which were used in their area.

John McGuinness
An exterior view of a block of Easiform maisonettes
An exterior view of a block of Easiform maisonettes at Twyford Close, including No.23 which was the 5000th dwelling to be completed by Laing in Swindon © Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/08/067429

We are delighted to bring to the public the fascinating John Laing Photographic Collection through digitising 10,000 images, which will be accessible to everyone through our website. The Collection offers unparalleled insight into the construction of 20th century Britain – covering everything from cathedrals, mosques and housing, to bus stations, bridges and motorways. We hope our “Breaking New Ground” project will shine a light on prominent and everyday British landmarks, and inspire the next generation to enjoy and engage in the built heritage all around us.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive, Historic England
Two men wearing hard hats looking at each other
A portrait of two Laing workers at the Carlisle Civic Centre construction site, showing I Blackett, one of the newest members of the team on the left with long-serving member of staff, Harry Varah, Foreman Bricklayer. © Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/08/063452

I am delighted that this unique record of the construction industry is being made available to a wide audience and demonstrates the evolving nature and contribution of an industry that impacts us all. As a company Laing has been a leader in this change and demonstrates how important the people who work in it are and how we have been able to affect their lives and working conditions.

Sir Martin Laing, Chairman of Trustees, John Laing Charitable Trust
Logo for John Laing Charitable Trust

'Breaking New Ground' is part of Historic England’s work to engage the public in the history of the built environment.

View images from the Collection

Share your experience on social media using #BreakingNewGround, tag @HistoricEngland

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