Fun in the Sun: 20 Amazing Archive Images of Post-war Britain

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.

A couple on a pedalo during a Laing staff trip to Felixstowe
A couple on a pedalo during a Laing staff trip to Felixstowe, Suffolk, 19 June 1954 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/08/021676

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.

Preston Central Bus Garage
Preston Central Bus Garage, opened October 1969. Listed Grade II © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01 10 05372

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.

The newly completed London Central Mosque
The newly completed London Central Mosque, Regent’s Park, temporarily displaying the John Laing sign. It opened July 1977. Listed Grade II* © Historic England John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01 09 771229

John Laing still exists today, but as an infrastructure funding and management business, having ceased its involvement in building and construction in 2002.

Chairman and owner of the company, John Laing, with a Rolleiflex camera
John Laing, with a Rolleiflex camera outside Bournemouth station during a London office staff outing, 30 May 1953 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/08/08844

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.

A couple with a young boy on a water-ride during a day trip to Skegness
A couple with a young boy on a water-ride during a day trip to Skegness, Lincolnshire, 22 May 1954, for employees from the Midlands and South Yorkshire © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/ JLP01/08/021588

Laing’s religious faith – he was a devout Christian and personally lived very modestly – underpinned his company’s drive and philanthropy.

Lunch at the Spa Café during a day trip to Bridlington
Lunch at the Spa Café during a day trip to Bridlington, Yorkshire, 19 June 1948. © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/ JLP01/08/000297

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.

A couple of a fairground waltzer during a trip to Skegness
A couple of a fairground waltzer during a trip to Skegness, Lincolnshire. © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/ JLP01/08/021564

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.

A chartered John Laing train leaving Waterloo station
A chartered John Laing train leaving Waterloo station taking Laing’s London office staff on an outing to Bournemouth, Dorset, 30 May 1953 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/08/008843A

We’re all going on a summer holiday

Families queue for coaches
Families queue for coaches during an outing to Whitley Bay, Northumberland, 13 June 1953. © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/08/009044

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.

Laing staff and families posing at the Victoria Pavilion
Laing staff and families posing at the Victoria Pavilion, Ilfracombe on a day trip, 12 June 1954 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01/08/021418

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.

A child eating a stick of rock
A child eating a stick of rock during an outing of Laing staff and families to Minehead, Somerset, 28 May 1949. This outing was for Laing staff from the South-West area, including contract workers from Bristol, Boscombe Down, Swindon, Cirencester and Gloucestershire © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01/08/001082
Helping a small boy build a sandcastle on the beach during a staff outing to Skegness,
Helping a small boy build a sandcastle on the beach during a staff outing to Skegness, 12 June 1948. Around 100 people attended this outing, including workers and their families from construction sites in Grimsby and Leicester. Laing had re-started such outings in 1947 after a seven year break – the Second World War had intervened © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01/08/000242

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.

Performing at the retirement farewell party for W.B. Haughan
Performing at the retirement farewell party for W.B. Haughan, General Manager of Laing’s Carlisle branch, Cumbria, 25 March 1953 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/ JLP01/08/008450

Team Spirit

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.

Laing workers with their families eating in a dining hall during a staff outing to Whitley Bay
Laing workers with their families eating in a dining hall during a staff outing to Whitley Bay, Northumberland, 13 June 1953 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01/08/009072

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.

Group on Bournemouth beach during a staff outing from the London office
Group on Bournemouth beach during a staff outing from the London office, 30 May 1953 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection JLP01/08/008865

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.

Couple in a dodgem car
Couple in a dodgem car during a staff outing to Whitley Bay, Northumberland, 13 June 1953 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01/08/009068

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.

A family in an open-top horse-drawn cart
A family in an open-top horse-drawn cart on the promenade at Gorleston-on-Sea, Norfolk, during a staff day trip to Great Yarmouth, 9 June 1956 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/ JLP01/08/046458

Laing Sports Days

Young girls lined up at the start of the egg-and-spoon race
Young girls lined up at the start of the egg-and-spoon race, Laing Sports Day, Elstree, 17 June 1961 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01/08/060168

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.

Spectators watching the long jump during a Sports Day
Spectators watching the long jump during a Sports Day at Laing’s Carlisle Sports Club, Cumbria, 19 June 1954 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01/08/021732

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.

Conducting a brass band at Laing Sports Club
Conducting a brass band at Laing Sports Club, Elstree, Herfordshire, 27 June 1953 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/JLP01/08/010226

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.

Children taking a ride on a miniature train
Children taking a ride on a miniature train, the ‘Continental Express’, during a Laing sports day, Elstree, Herfordshire, 18 June 1955 © Historic England/John Laing Photographic Collection/ JLP01/08/043914

You can access more images and information about the John Laing Photographic Collection, please visit our website.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Further Reading

3 responses to Fun in the Sun: 20 Amazing Archive Images of Post-war Britain

  1. artculturetourism says:

    Fantastic photos and blog!! Many thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. John Bray says:

    This was brilliant. It’s an oddly neglected bit of history (at least when I was at school). It’s always been interesting for me, thinking back on how our country recovered after the war.

    Thanks for sharing this, All the best

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