William Kirby Laing was born on 21st July 1916, the elder son of John and Beatrice Laing, and was educated initially at St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, and then went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He and his brother Maurice were brought up to appreciate the family’s business and its religious beliefs. They joined their father’s business and together comprised a formidable partnership.
When war came Kirby was persuaded to stay with the company on essential war work and immediately became a director of John Laing. He succeeded however in convincing his father to release him to serve in the Royal Engineers for the last 2 years of the war.
By the end of the war the company, John Laing, had grown enormously as a result of the wartime construction of airfields and other military establishments, and they joined in the servicing of the post-war housing boom. John Laing, recognising that the boom would not last forever, decided to diversify both at home and overseas. Work in this era included the first nuclear power station at Berkeley and the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral—better known in the firm as “The Power and the Glory”. In the late 1950s the firm built the first inter-urban section of the M1, completing it on time and to budget, averaging a mile every 8 days, no mean feat for the first series of contracts of this type!
Kirby Laing concentrated on the building side of the business; Maurice ran the construction company. Kirby lived for a short time in both South Africa and Canada overseeing major expansion of the company abroad. He retired from the Chairmanship of John Laing in 1976 and took up chairmanship of Laing Properties. The companies split in 1978 in anticipation of a Labour victory at the polls with their manifesto’s stated intention to nationalise large industries. He joined the Worshipful Company of Paviors in 1957 and was a very active Pavior becoming Master in 1987.
Sir Kirby was a highly respected, admired figure and an outstanding leader of the industry being President and Chairman of the NFBTE and NJC as well as the Institution of Civil Engineers and authored several technical papers.
He was a keen fly fisherman and loved growing orchids. He married Joan Bratt in 1939, who died in 1981, and secondly Dr Isobel Lewis in 1986. He was knighted in 1968. His second wife and three sons from his first marriage, Sir Martin, David and Christopher, all now Past Masters of the Paviors, survive him.
Deceased Sunday 12th April 2009.