The brothers Philip and John Laing, from Fife in Scotland, had established themselves as shipbuilders on the River Wear by 1793 and in 1818 established themselves on the south bank of the river at Deptford. In 1843, Philip Laing passed control of the business to his son, James (1823-1901, eventually Sir James Laing).
The yard built its first iron ship (also the river's first iron ship), the Amity, in 1853 and by 1866 solely wooden construction had been phased out, although composite iron and timber ships were built until 1875. The 1st edition Ordnance Survey plan shows a patent slip, saw pit and smithy within the site. In 1898, the firm was incorporated as a limited liability company, Sir James Laing & Sons Ltd. Financial difficulties in the years after Sir James' death in 1901 (he had run the company for 58 years) were overcome when Sir James Marr took over the business in 1909.
During WW1 Laing’s produced the greatest tonnage of ships on the Wear (109,924 tons; a total of 18 ships) and the yard’s facilities included five building berths and a graving dock. In 1930 the yard closed and all staff were laid off apart from apprentices, but by 1935 was again receiving firm orders.
During WW2 the yard was again in boom and produced 41 vessels, including 32 tankers; over the succeeding 20 years a further 36 tankers were constructed. From around 1960 it began to specialise in ‘bulk carrier’ vessels which required the construction of prefabrication sheds and larger shipbuilding berths.
In 1954, Alan Marr, managing director of the yard, helped form Sunderland Shipbuilding, Dry Docks & Engineering Co Ltd., of which Laing's was one of eight subsidiary organisations. This consortium was acquired by Doxford & Sunderland Shipbuilding & Engineering Co Ltd. in 1961, and in 1966 Laing's independent existence ceased, becoming the Deptford Yard of the group.
The yard was Nationalized in 1977, becoming part of British Shipbuilders. In 1986, the last ship was built in the yard.
Since 1986 the yard’s facilities have been used by a number of engineering companies. Many structures remain from the final operational decades of the yard.