“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.’”