Abstract Intervertebral discs allow bending and twisting of the spine whilst resisting compression from gravity and muscle action, and are composite structures of the peripheral annulus fibrosus enclosing the nucleus pulposus. Their development is complex, involving several different connective tissue types, yet little is known of the developing extracellular matrix (ECM). We report the ECM composition of foetal rat discs from their first appearance to birth. The earliest collagen detected was type III, which was subsequently replaced by type II in the cartilaginous inner annulus and joined by type I in the fibrous outer annulus. Type IV collagen appeared in outer annulus, associated with myofibroblast-like cells of the orienting collagenous lamellae. Laminin and fibronectin co-distributed here in later stages, although overall they had a wider distribution. Aggrecan ocurred in early nucleus pulposus and then appeared in the inner annulus, in association with cartilage differentiation. Versican appeared later in the inner annulus, and also in the dorsal region of the outer annulus. Comparisons of glycosaminoglycan and proteoglycan label allowed extrapolations to be made as to likely glycosaminoglycan components of the large proteoglycans, and of other proteoglycans that may be present — thus differential distribution of aggrecan and keratan sulfate label suggested the presence of fibromodulin and/or lumican. Functionally aggrecan would confer compression resistance to cartilaginous structures. Versican may also contribute, but along with the small proteoglycans is likely to be associated with various stages of control of cell differentiation, tissue morphogenesis and collagen fibre formation in the assembly of the annulus fibrosus.