Breaking New Ground is a pioneering 21-month project to digitise 10,000 images from the John Laing Photographic Collection, covering the post-war period of this world-renowned construction company. The complete collection numbers nearly a quarter of a million photographs.
Here we look at a selection of never-before-seen images showing the company’s workers and their families at play, enjoying themselves during their time off – organised by the firm.
John Laing and Son
John Laing and Son – founded in 1848 – profoundly shaped post-war Britain following the damage and destruction of the Second World War, significantly transforming the built environment and the lives of the general population.
Over the decades, the firm built huge pioneering infrastructure projects such as the M1 motorway, London’s Westway and Birmingham’s Bull Ring, as well as hospitals, housing, shopping centres, nuclear power stations, factories, universities, Coventry Cathedral, the Barbican in the City of London, and the London Central Mosque, Regent’s Park.
John Laing still exists today, but as an infrastructure funding and management business, having ceased its involvement in building and construction in 2002.
It was John William Laing – a Victorian born in 1879 who died in 1978 aged nearly 100 – who took over the Carlisle family business in Cumbria from his father, moving the headquarters to Mill Hill, north London in the 1920s. Over almost six decades, he built it into a globally-renowned construction company, with regional offices nationwide. By the early 1950s, it had around 15,000 employees.
Laing’s religious faith – he was a devout Christian and personally lived very modestly – underpinned his company’s drive and philanthropy.
Laing fostered a strong sense of community among his workers. His was a close-knit company. Staff really cared about their firm, investing their lives in it. The company cared about them in return, with the welfare and well-being of employees a high priority; ingrained within the company culture.
Early on in his career, Laing gave away more than 30% of his income to charities – in 1909 he had given a pledge to God that for every £1 he earned, a significant percentage would be given to charity.
He provided nurses, as well as mobile canteens on the big long-term construction sites. He pioneered a paid holiday scheme for staff in 1934 and, three years later, introduced a guaranteed minimum 24 hour week for regular employees. He gave awards for achievements, and created a thriving apprenticeship scheme. When the business became a public company in January 1953, Laing gave shares to senior managers.
We’re all going on a summer holiday
Every year in the summer months staff and their families, including site construction workers, could look forward to day trips and outings to the seaside on specially chartered trains and coaches. As these were family events, members of the Laing family came too.
Everyone dressed in their ‘Sunday best’ to go on these outings. Women and girls wore smart frocks and tailored coats; many boys wore blazers and shorts; men put on jackets, suits and ties, regardless of whether they would be on the beach, at a sports day, or on fairground rides.
Pictured is an extremely spruce Laing employee, believed to be future District Manager, G.B. Malcolm, wearing a fedora hat and what could be ‘plus fours’ – the then fashionable baggy pants that ended tightly halfway down the calf. The child is equally smartly dressed with a velvet-collared coat and voluminous trousers ending in buttoned spats.
A substantial number of employees worked for Laing for life. He was proud of his company’s team spirit, so much so that he named the in-house newsletter Team Spirit, first published November 1946.
In-house photographers produced photos of the numerous outings, sports days, galas and events for the newsletter, many of which are included among Historic England’s newly digitised images.
Team Spirit kept employees in touch with what was going on, both on the professional front and socially. Within its pages, Laing fostered healthy competition between managers, promoting natural regional rivalries. The newsletter reported on the signing of new contracts and detailed the progress of construction projects – encouraging staff morale and promoting the company externally.
There was plenty of other content, including coverage of new employees, promotions, retirements, births and deaths, golden and diamond wedding anniversaries, as well as marriage announcements – countless relationships were forged among the staff.
Team Spirit ceased publication in the early 2000s, eventually transforming itself into a newsletter for the active community of retired Laing pensioners, who still meet today for seasonal lunches and events.
Laing Sports Days
As well as summer days trips and outings, there were annual Laing Sports Days throughout the years. These were hugely enjoyable social occasions for employees, construction workers, and their families. Many of the offices had their own sports clubs. The main Laing Sports Club was located at Elstree, Hertfordshire.
Events might include competitive athletics, football, hockey, tennis, netball and bowls, as well as children’s sports, and fun and games like the adult sack race.
The company laid on all kinds of entertainment on Sports Days, such as a funfair, fete, brass band, miniature train rides, fancy dress competitions, and evening barbeques.
You can access more images and information about the John Laing Photographic Collection, please visit our website.
Written by Nicky Hughes.