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People: Sir John Laing

Why would a man give away a fortune?


Sir John Laing (1879 - 1978)

John Laing loved being outdoors, especially on the Lakeland Fells. But on one day in September 1909, when he was 30, he was not in the mood for walking. He sat alone on a grassy slope overlooking the Irish Sea with his head in his hands, in despair.

Ever since he became head of the family building firm, he had wanted to build things like power stations and reservoirs instead of just building houses. But everything had gone wrong with the job they were now doing and the family firm might become bankrupt. Apart from the shame of failure, John knew that his parents were relying on him to keep them in their old age, and that the men who worked for him would lose their jobs.

But John Laing knew where to find help when he was in trouble; he could always ask God. So he asked God simply, to show him a way through his troubles, and promised to make Him a partner in the business if He would help.

Laing felt prompted to write down a 'Programme for Life,' which basically said that first and foremost God should be at the centre of his life and, secondly he was going to enjoy life and help others to do the same. Laing kept the piece of paper with him throughout his life and stuck to the 'programme.'

Alongside this, Laing also made a promise that he would be wise and generous with his money, always giving a percentage away, saving some and living on what was left. This disciplined approach worked. Fifty years later, the firm of 'Laing' was a leader in the construction industry, building motorways, power stations, airfields, houses, and even a Cathedral. Yet when he died in 1978 at the age of 99, his personal possessions were worth £371: the man who had earned millions of pounds had given them all away!

Who was John Laing?

John Laing was born on 24th September 1879 in Carlisle. The family building business was run by his father, and young John earned his first wage when he was about 12, by wallpapering his parents’ house at one shilling per room. At home, he was given full market price for vegetables that he grew in the garden. He used his carpentry skills to make things like step-ladders which then were sold by the local auctioneer. John was restless and practical and at 15 he left school to become an apprentice in the family business. For three years he worked in all weathers and learnt how to lay bricks and carve stone, competing with the other apprentices and even the skilled men.

The Laing family belonged to a thriving Brethren church in Carlisle, where John learned to have faith in God. Brethren churches worshipped very simply and rejected formal traditional forms of worship. So the ordinary folk who made up the church relied heavily on the Bible for their inspiration, and they helped one another. At the age of seven, John made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, which would shape his whole life. John was not a great preacher, but he never missed an opportunity to talk to someone about the Lord Jesus who meant so much to him. He loved talking to young people, and later organised regular camps for teenagers, leading expeditions into the hills which he loved. He became a leader in the church, which was as important to him as his business.

John married Beatrice in September 1910, and the basis for their marriage was John’s ‘Programme for Life.’ They shared the same simple faith in God, and their marriage was a deeply happy one, with perfect trust in one another. When a large family home was built with views across open country, a notice was put on the gate: “The public may enter and use the seats around the side of the garage during daylight”.

John was a leader of his industry and was often consulted by Government Ministers. He was Knighted in the New Year Honours List of 1959, when he was 79. Although he was delighted, he saw that this award recognised the achievements of many people that he had worked with.

Helping others to enjoy life.

In the early years of the twentieth century, building workers had a hard time. There were no machines like cement mixers, cranes and diggers, everything had to be done with muscle power and in all sorts of weather. Very few employers thought about their workers. Businesses operated on the principle of buy cheapest, sell dearest. John Laing realised that this was not what Jesus taught.

One account tells of a workman on one of Laing’s building site who was hard at work winding a crane by hand. Although working well, his thoughts were not really on his job.

John Laing came by and noticed all was not well, “You’re not looking well. What is the trouble?”

The man explained, “My wife is ill, and has been in bed for several days. I have to see to the children each morning and do all the housework before I start work here at 7am.”

“Where do you live?” asked John Laing, who then left the site.

An hour or two later, he came back. “You are needed at home,” he said, “take two weeks off with pay.”

When the man went home, he found that John Laing had been there and had left five pounds on the table.

Another story tells of two men were having lunch in a canteen on a Laing site. “Do you really expect us to eat this stuff?” they jeered as they queued for their food. Dodging the rain which came in through holes in the roof, they found a table and started to eat. “The old man is visiting the site today. I bet he won’t be sitting in this rotten canteen eating this rubbish,” said one.

They took no notice of a man in an old raincoat who was sitting nearby, but he listened carefully to what they said. The next day, a new roof was put on the canteen and better food was provided! The man in the raincoat was John Laing, finding out how his men lived, doing his best to improve their lives.

John Laing was 77 when the company started to rebuild Coventry Cathedral. The old Cathedral was destroyed during a bombing raid in 1940. The new one was a modern design and used some of the stonework from the ruin. It was the first Cathedral built in Britain for 300 years. It was a great honour to be entrusted to build such a great Cathedral, and John was delighted. They promised to employ the best craftsmen, the most modern technology and to make the building worthy of the worship of God. Any profit made in the construction would be given back to the Cathedral. The Queen was at the Consecration service in May 1962, and Sir John was determined to attend although he was quite frail. He only stopped himself from falling during the service by holding on to the chair in front of him!