As the work at the Empress wound down, the new sign went up, and our site office was removed, alongside the platform and other equipment; we couldn’t help but to reflect: this has been such a special job, such an honour.
The Empress is, of course, such a unique symbol of history for Victorians. The present and the passage of time are both vibrantly alive in the grand old building; and in a way the work we wrapped up was about those same themes – for what else is a restoration than the undoing of time itself?
As if to add to the temporal undercurrent, we discovered that for many of us this job was something of an echo. We had among our files many whose fathers, and even grandfathers had been part of various undertakings on the venerable old building. That was a thrill. It really added an entire other dimension to our work there!
Throughout mankind’s history fathers and sons have often worked at the same workplaces, passing along the trade from generation to generation: we find moving stories of this in the Valley of the Kings outside fabled Thebes of old Egypt, in the walls of Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, or in the tombs of ancient Chinese Emperors. The passage of time, the transition from one generation to the next – the unavoidable essence of life itself, seemed somehow assuaged by the transmission of knowledge and role from father to son and with it the illusion of permanence. Foremost was the teaching of the trades, the most noble of all.
As the times changed so did the tradition. With the industrial revolution many trades suffered, and most were no longer transferred in the same ritual manner. But the tide of history often returns us to the same place and in the latter part of the twentieth century some of the trades began to flourish in a different way, the knowledge more arcane, more sophisticated. The trade of the mason in the new world is one such trade, because it’s demands are more specific and the number of really good masons smaller.
We had some great examples of multiple generations working on the Empress, fathers and sons, building upon and restoring the work of their grandfathers and fathers so long ago.
Someday, who knows… maybe our grandchildren – or their children – will restore a wall, a chimney or something else our hands touched or placed in the grand old Empress – and maybe they’ll think of us then.