IT’S curious what people choose to consider “mysterious” and what they take for granted. I once sat in a railway carriage outside Huddersfield opposite a man of about my own age who was reading, with apparent seriousness, one of Erich von Daniken’s fantasies about alien technology and the building of ancient monuments.

Had he turned his head to the left, he would have seen that we were stationary in one of the deepest cuttings in the region, a decisive slice through rock and earth that had been made, like the embankments and tunnels elsewhere on the route, entirely by men with picks, shovels, barrows and explosives.

The association between ancient monuments and modern transport systems isn’t new. Lt Peter Lecount, the great assistant to Robert Stephenson, estimated that the construction of the London to Birmingham railway, which he considered one of the greatest feats of engineering of all time, had involved the raising by one foot of 25,000,000,000 cubic feet of earth, nearly ten million more than the Great Pyramid, and all done in half a decade. Thanks to archaeology, we now know more about the men who built the pyramids (down to the names of gangmasters and “Friends of the Pharoah”) than we do about the men who built the railways.

This despite the fact that railway workings criss-cross most of the British Isles. This despite Terry Coleman’s pioneering work of industrial history being now half a century old. It is republished pretty much as it was, handsomely illustrated with prints and photographs from the time and with a brief new introduction from the most distinguished recent historian of the railways.

A few intriguing characters do step out of the mass – a Bible John, Thick-Lipped Blondin, Ene-Eyed Conro, Devil-driving George – but for the most part, and with the exception of mostly enlightened engineers like Stephenson, the two Thomas Brasseys and Sir Morton Peto, the railway “navvies” come down to history mostly as itinerant masses who roamed the country according to work and need, settling briefly, depredating food, women and every drop of drink to be had in the area and moving on, like locusts. And yet, Coleman’s account of this restless society confers it with considerable dignity and mutual support. Just as the men who commissioned the railways come out well in the final balance, so too do the navvies.

Their name came from navigators, and they were sometimes also known as “bankmen”. As a community, they evolved out of the great canal-building era, which preceded the railways and was superseded by them.

They worked and played hard, according to scrupulously maintained rules.

My grandmother always told me that a viaduct outside Newry [in Ulster] had one arch for every man killed in its construction. There were many casualties, and the figures during the great era of the navvy – approximately the third, fourth, fifth decades of the 19th century – were staggering.

In Scotland, the building of the Caledonian line occupied seven thousand navvies. The main threat to their getting a living wasn’t the bosses but gangs of Irish workmen.

In Fife, warning notices were put up and anonymous letters sent to contractors:

“Sir – You must warn all your Irish men to be of the grownd on Monday the 11 of this month at 12 o’clock or else we must put them by forse FOR WE ARE DETERMINED TO DO IT”. There were similar tensions on the Edinburgh-Hawick line and a stand-off at Gorebridge.

There’s a life-size bronze statue of “The Unknown Navvy” at Gerrards Cross station in Buckinghamshire, part-funded by the rock band Genesis, whose song Driving the Last Spike offers a strangely moving soundtrack to Coleman’s classic essay in forgotten history. Its refrain is “They’ll never see the likes of us again”, its coda the poignant “can you hear me / can you see / Don’t you hear me / don’t you see”. If they lacked a voice before, they found it in The Railway Navvies, and now we have it again, as fresh as ever it was.