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TOBIN, JAMES, businessman, politician, office holder, and jp; baptized 19 April 1774 in Halifax, son of Michael Tobin and Catherine Hannah Murphy; m. there 25 Jan. 1800 Eleanor Lanigan, daughter of Patrick Lanigan from Callan (Republic of Ireland), and they had six children; d. 3 Nov. 1838 in Halifax.

The Tobins were a Roman Catholic Irish family who came to Halifax via Newfoundland early in the 1770s. Michael Tobin, a native of Waterford, was by trade a butcher. He rose to a modest competence as a victualler, supplying fish and meat to the government. After his death in 1804 his son James Tobin continued the business in partnership with a younger brother, Michael. The scale of their operations was limited at first, and it was not until late in the Napoleonic Wars that the family came into commercial prominence.

The Tobin brothers, in business as J. and M. Tobin, took advantage of the diversion of trade and other opportunities presented by the prolonged European war and the War of 1812. The value of goods imported by the company rose rapidly from about £800 (1810) to £19,183 (1814) and £60,797 (1816). In 1813 sale of cargo from prize vessels grossed £9,938. The firm traded in rum, molasses, and brown sugar with the West Indies, and imported wine and manufactured goods from overseas.

The profits of these activities were invested in mortgages, loans, and the provincial debt. In the period 1814–37 the Tobins granted 63 mortgages for amounts ranging between a few dozen and several hundred pounds apiece. Major note holders as well, the brothers held one-third of the provincial debt of Nova Scotia in 1818. By 1825 they had nearly £5,000 in provincial currency certificates, and in 1836 they were the province’s largest creditors. Their investments were highly profitable: by 1829–30 the Tobins were collecting 18 per cent per annum on their large capital advances. They were also subscribers for shares in the Shubenacadie Canal project in 1829 [see Charles Rufus Fairbanks.]

James Tobin invested £5,000 to become one of the eight founding partners of the Halifax Banking Company in September 1825. This venture returned annual dividends of up to 20 per cent and placed him in the inner circle of Halifax’s commercial élite. Tobin’s standing was recognized by his appointment to the Nova Scotia Council on 25 Jan. 1832 – he was the first Roman Catholic to achieve this elevation. He had been a commissioner of the court for the summary trial of actions in Halifax Township since 16 April 1817. Now he became not only a councillor, joining his banking partners Samuel Cunard*, Enos Collins*, and Henry Hezekiah Cogswell*, but also a commissioner and justice of the peace throughout the province. When the Council was divided into executive and legislative branches early in 1838, Tobin became a member of the Legislative Council.

Tobin’s involvement in general community affairs, although relatively limited, reflected his Irish and Catholic origins. He joined the Charitable Irish Society on 17 May 1797 and on ten occasions served as a member of its committee of charity. At a time of considerable Irish immigration in the 1820s and 1830s this position was no sinecure. Michael Tobin rose to the chair of the society and succeeded his brother and business partner as a member of the Legislative Council. James Tobin was a warden of St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church from 1800 until his death and in 1830 was a generous donor toward the completion of its successor, St Mary’s Cathedral (St Mary’s Basilica). In his will, Tobin left a substantial sum to the children of his daughter Eliza, wife of John James Sawyer, a Protestant. Those of the grandchildren who were Roman Catholic were to inherit their share of the bequest; those who were Protestant would simply enjoy a life interest. Though Tobin was a sincere Catholic, he was not a bigoted one. He supported Thomas McCulloch’s appointment as principal of Dalhousie College in 1838 by stating in council that if he had sons to educate he would place them under McCulloch’s care.

Tobin in 1838 was the wealthiest Roman Catholic in the Maritimes, and one of the wealthiest men in Nova Scotia. At his death, his estate was valued at £50,360, investments and merchandise accounting for more than half of the total. Real estate and household effects were also of considerable worth. Tobin’s personal effacement, cautious conservatism, and business acumen had gained him success and social standing. His influence on his co-religionists and fellow Irish had, however, been minimal once the Reform movement gained momentum in the 1830s; younger men such as Laurence O’Connor Doyle* began to express the liberal sentiments of the Irish constituency. Two of Tobin’s sons achieved political prominence. Michael became a member of the Legislative Council and then of the Executive Council in Nova Scotia; James William* obtained the same positions in Newfoundland.

Terrence M. Punch

Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, T40; Wills, 3: ff.284 et seq.; 5: ff.92–110 (mfm. at PANS). Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 41: f.42; 46: f.297; 47: f.298; 49: f.38; 53: f.472; 58: f.1; 63: f.75 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 20, 65–66; RG 1, 195, 386; RG 31-104, 8–9. St Mary’s Roman Catholic Basilica (Halifax), Account-book of St Peter’s Church [St Mary’s Cathedral], 1801–58 (mfm. at PANS). J. S. Martell, “A documentary study of provincial finance and currency, 1812–36,” PANS Bull. (Halifax), 2 (1939–41), no.4. T. L. Punch, “Tobin genealogy,” Nova Scotia Hist. Quarterly (Halifax), 5 (1975): 71–81.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Terrence M. Punch, “TOBIN, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 19, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tobin_james_7E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tobin_james_7E.html
Author of Article: Terrence M. Punch
Title of Article: TOBIN, JAMES
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1988
Year of revision: 1988
Access Date: April 19, 2014