28th Jan, 2021

PHOTO SPECIAL: Unseen images reveal construction of Coventry Cathedral in Breaking New Ground project

Catherine Vonledebur 13th Jan, 2020 Updated: 13th Jan, 2020

TODAY (Monday, January 13) Historic England and the John Laing Charitable Trust have released previously unseen images of Britain’s construction history, including these stunning images of Coventry Cathedral being built.

It marks the launch of Breaking New Ground, a 21-month project to digitise and explore the the history of constructing modern Britain through the John Laing Photographic Collection.

Around 2,000 newly-digitised images have been released on the Historic England website.

This is the first batch group of a total 10,000 images that will be made available to the public by autumn 2020, including archive photographs of the construction of Sir Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The photos show how the city was gradually rebuilt between 1956 and 1962, following the November 1940 Blitz bombings which devastated the city and left the old medieval cathedral in ruins.

The entire project will include:

  • Ex-Laing construction workers sharing 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, “Making modern Britain”, exploring the collection and the stories behind the images.
  • Workshops planned for primary schools in Coventry.

Speaking of the project Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England, said: “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.”

View images from the Collection, share your experience on social media using #BreakingNewGround, tag @HistoricEngland and sign up to Historic England’s newsletter (historicenglandservices).


John W Laing and Captain N T Thurston signing the contract documents for the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral. This image was catalogued as part of a pilot project funded by the John Laing Charitable Trust. © Historic England Archive, 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.
  • 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 its employees, arranging various outings and occasions for staff including regular company sports days and “family days” to the seaside.

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