Having read many books on the construction projects of Britain, including canals, railways, power stations, the Scottish hydro projects, the major bridges and the motorway network, along with the histories of the companies who carried them out, I have always felt that the human side of these stories was missing. Often the death toll, or the total number employed on a project are the only mention of the men involved.
Previous books on the subject, Terry Coleman's 'The Railway Navvies' and Patrick MacGill's semi autobiographical novel 'Children of the Dead End' cover between them the time from the canals and their need for large numbers of labourers, up to the building of the first hydro-electric scheme at Kinlochleven for the British Aluminium company. 'The Men Who Built Britain' covers these times, but more importantly, brings the story of the Irish navvies right up to the present day.
Not only is the book an excellent social account of the lives of the Irish employed on the major civil engineering projects in Britain, but it also gives a valuable insight into the projects themselves, and the views and attitudes of many of the contractors who employed the men is such large numbers. The book highlights the lives of the men while in Britain, but also crucially covers what life meant for those back home in Ireland.
The whole strata of the Navvy society is covered, from the original tramp navvies, the later 'long distance kiddies', the men who became gangers, foremen and agents, to the men 'who managed to pull themselves out of the trench and into a Mercedes'. Business success among men who started as navvies is well documented, and there are very useable appendices and bibliography to support the author's work.
The subject matter has been well researched, the text is very readable and well presented, but some of the photographs used are poor examples. While the book does not rely heavily on photographs to carry the narrative it would have been possible to have far better pictures in many cases. The projects covered in the book are well documented photographically, both by those who were employed on them, and by the contract companies and clients involved. If pictures from these sources had been used a better visual idea of the conditions these men worked and lived in could have been shown.
In the book the author makes references to the Dubliners song 'McAlpines Fusiliers' which is a celebration of the navvy life, but another song, about monuments left by unknown workers and unrecorded hands, sung by Saffron Summerfield, asks 'Where are the men'. This book comes the closest to answering that question.