When, in 2001, the concrete frame contractor O’Rourke snapped up the battered remnants of John Laing Construction for a token £1, it was widely viewed as the ignominious end of a once-great British construction dynasty.
Ray O’Rourke undoubtedly never saw it in those terms and, indeed, the business, in its new incarnation as Laing O’Rourke, has continued to trade as the UK’s biggest family-owned contractor – even if it’s a different family these days.
O’Rourke might have the business, but he doesn’t own the heritage. John Laing Group, though no longer in the contracting business, still exists as a property developer, facilities manager and PFI operator and, even if it doesn’t build anything, it can still claim to be the standard-bearer of the John Laing tradition.
This heritage is graphically demonstrated by the existence of the John Laing Photographic Collection, a pictorial record of the company’s construction achievements in days gone by.
Now, in collaboration with Historic England (the government’s historic buildings and monuments commission) the John Laing Charitable Trust has released 2,000 newly-digitised images, the first batch of a total 10,000 that will be made available to the public by the end of this year.
The project, called Breaking New Ground, “explores the history of constructing modern Britain” through the John Laing Photographic Collection.
The collection, which is held by the Historic England Archive, contains over 230,000 images charting John Laing’s construction work over the past 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,” says Historic England.
The Laing construction dynasty can be traced back to 1848 when James Laing set up a building business in Carlisle. The company grew steadily and in 1953 John Laing & Son (Holdings) was listed on the London Stock Exchange.
The business had a hand in some of the UK’s landmark projects of the 20th century, including construction of the M1 and M6 motorways (which compete for the title of the UK’s first proper motorway), Sizewell B nuclear power station and the new Coventry Cathedral.
Throughout the century, Laing employed photographers to record its work and as a consequence the archive includes unique images of some of Britain’s most important infrastructure projects and public buildings as they were taking shape.
The Breaking New Ground project will involve the digitisation of 10,000 images selected from the Laing collection, making these accessible to the public via the Historic England website.
It will also include a process of public engagement, primarily in collaboration with schools around the country, with ex-Laing construction workers using the photographic material to share their experiences with schoolchildren and other members of the public.
Already, Historic England has hosted workshops in Swindon and Bristol, with further workshops planned for primary schools in London, Coventry and Carlisle.
Among the contributors to the Swindon workshop was John McGuinness, a cost surveyor with Laing from 1960, who worked on housing developments using Laing’s Easiform in-situ concrete building system (a reminder that “modern methods of construction” are nothing new).
“The sites I worked on with Laing ranged from brick and concrete housing to projects including the London Central Mosque and the British Library,” recalls McGuinness. “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.”
Knowledge of the housing crisis of the post-war period might indeed prove valuable given the chronic shortage of affordable homes available to today’s Millennials and Generation Z.
Perhaps it’s time to revive Laing’s Easiform design?
Preston Bus Station under construction. Designed by Building Design Partnership, engineered by Ove Arup and built by Laing, the structure was given Grade II listed status in September 2013