Filed Under Mills

Alfred Benoit's House (Demolished)

Ever Since I Can Remember, I’ve Been Working”—Alfred Benoit

Alfred Benoit was one of many youths who spent their childhood laboring in the brutal, unforgiving mills of New Bedford. Born September 3, 1900, Alfred began working in 1912 as a floor sweeper but became skilled at repairing the looms that sustained the New Bedford textile industry.

We know of Alfred partly from photographs taken by social worker and labor activist Lewis Hine, who came to New Bedford to document the conditions in the mills for his work with the National Child Labor Committee. The work of Hines and other reformers like Jacob Riis helped to change harsh child labor policies, which had allowed children under sixteen years-old to work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions for more than ten hours a day. In January, 1912, Hine photographed part of the Benoit family in their rented tenement on North Front Street. He jotted this note:

Slovenly kitchen living-room of family of Alfred Beniot [sic], 191 N. Front St., a sweeper in Bennett Mill; has been there for two months. Mother works in the same mill; father is a canvasser (and shiftless). Said, “I’m de father of 11 children.” The baby in the girl’s arms is one they are keeping for another woman. The mother would not get in the photo. Alfred had bad eyes this morning (influenza apparently) and mopping them with a filthy rag. One of the little ones had the same trouble. Another had a boil on his face.

When Hine took this photograph in 1912, three of Alfred’s siblings had already died, and Hine observed the poor health of the Benoit children. 

Alfred’s father, Archille, came to New Bedford from Canada around 1905. He worked as a weaver, moving between New Bedford, Fall River, and Waltham, and briefly returned to Canada, following rumors of economic opportunity. By 1912, Archille was employed as a canvasser, going door-to-door selling goods and services. Hine considered him to be lazy, but it is possible that Archille was worn down by years of hard labor.

The Benoit house at 191 North Front Street was likely a three-decker tenement. A 1911 map of New Bedford indicated that the property was owned by M. Rogers. Behind the house was the New Bedford Day Nursery, and a block away was the St. Rose School, but it is unlikely that the Benoit children were able to take advantage of these facilities.

Alfred married his wife, Nora, in 1923, and together they raised seven children. Alfred’s grandchildren remember him as “a man who truly enjoyed life.” His granddaughter Nancy, the first of the Benoit family to graduate college, recalls that Alfred “wasn’t an overachiever. He enjoyed what he had.” Alfred enjoyed lawn bowling and sometimes traveled to Canada to compete in checkers tournaments. He spent time at the Brown Jug, a neighborhood bar owned by Francis Lawler, who served a New Bedford’s mayor in the late 1950s. Alfred and Lawler became good friends.

The three-decker on North Front Street was demolished to make way for Interstate 195, but still standing is the house on Clark Street where Alfred lived with his own family and the Brown Jug, a North End institution. Alfred’s son in law, Romeo Pothier, recalls him as a man with many friends. Asked if Alfred ever spoke of his childhood, Pothier recalled, “He once told me, ‘Ever since I can remember, I’ve been working.’”

Images

Alfred Benoit's apartment, 1912. Lewis Hine observed the “slovenly” nature of the Beniots’ apartment, but he failed to note the family’s attempts to brighten their walls with a childlike picture of a train and an image of a fashionable woman, perhaps taken from a magazine. The Beniots moved frequently, perhaps seeking tenements that were better maintained by their owners. Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes. Slovenly Kitchen Living-Room of Family of Alfred Benoit, 191 N. Front St., a Sweeper in Bennett Mill; Has Been There for Two Months ... a Boil on His Face. Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts. 1912, //www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/nclc.02475. Date: 1912
Atlas of the City of New Bedford, 1911 (detail) In 1912, Alfred Benoit lived with his family at 191 North Front Street, likely in a three-decker tenement. A highway on-ramp now occupies the site of this building. Two triple-deckers across the street from Alfred’s still stand, along with a scattering of others on the streets bounded by North Front Street, Cedar Grove Street, and Belleville Avenue, providing an indication of the appearance of Alfred’s building. The remainder of the buildings in this portion of Alfred's neighborhood fell victim to the development of Route 18 and I195. Source:
“Search Results from Map, Available Online, 1911, Atlas of the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts : Based on Plans in the Office of the City Engineer. (G3764nm.GLA-00098/).” Map. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Accessed April 26, 2022. https://www.loc.gov/maps/?dates=1911&fa=segmentof:g3764nm.gla00098/&sb=shelf-id&st=gallery.
Date: 1911
Alfred Benoit, 1912. Alfred Benoit (left) was about 12 years-old and a floor sweeper in the spinning room of the Bennett Mill when Lewis Hine photographed him in 1912. Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes. Alfred Beniot [sic], 191 North St. Sweeper in Bennett Mill, in Spinning Room #2 Has Been There Two Months; Seemed to Be 11 Yrs. Old. Alfred Recorded as 12 Years Old. Location: New Bedford, Massachusetts. 1912, //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004003322/PP/. Date: 1912
Alfred Benoit, 1912. Lewis Hine photographed 12 year-old Alfred along with two men, possibly Alfred’s co-workers. Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes. [Alfred Beniot [sic], 191 North St. Sweeper in Bennett Mill, in Spinning Room #2 Has Been There Two Months; Seemed to Be 11 Yrs. Old. Alfred Recorded as 12 Years Old.] Location: [New Bedford, Massachusetts]. 1912, //www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/nclc.02518. Date: 1912
Alfred Benoit, 1912. Alfred Benoit’s expression shows no reluctance to be photographed, unlike many of Lewis Hine’s youthful subjects, who perhaps had been told that Hines’ work could damage the mills and perhaps the ability of the child workers to contribute to their family’s finances. Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes. [Alfred Beniot [sic], 191 North St. Sweeper in Bennett Mill, in Spinning Room #2 Has Been There Two Months; Seemed to Be 11 Yrs. Old. Alfred Recorded as 12 Years Old.] Location: [New Bedford, Massachusetts]. 1912, //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004003383/PP/. Date: 1912

Location

191 N Front St New Bedford, MA 02746

Metadata

Ryan Cruise, “Alfred Benoit's House (Demolished),” Rhode Tour, accessed January 30, 2023, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/76.