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TOBIN, JAMES WILLIAM, merchant, politician, and office-holder; baptized 11 May 1808 at Halifax, N.S., the second son of James Tobin* and Eleanor Lanigan; m. 11 Feb. 1834 Emily Cecilia, younger daughter of William Bullen, md, at Cork (Republic of Ireland), and they had four children; d. 24 July 1881 in London, England.

James William Tobin first appears in Newfoundland in 1828, where his father, a Halifax merchant and a member of the Legislative Council, apparently had business interests. In January 1831 Tobin entered into partnership with John Bayley Bland of St John’s to form Bland and Tobin. The firm was involved in the general trade of Newfoundland with Halifax as well as with the West Indies, Madeira, Liverpool, and Quebec. It operated a sailing packet service between Halifax and St John’s until the arrival of a steam service in 1844. After his father’s death in 1838, Tobin began making frequent trips to Ireland. The partnership between Bland and Tobin was dissolved on 31 Dec. 1839 and Tobin carried on the business with James B. Hutton as James Tobin and Company.

In February 1841 Tobin was appointed to the Executive Council by Governor Henry Prescott*, and he took his seat in April. When the Amalgamated Legislature was inaugurated the following year he was appointed a member. Tobin was not an active participant, however, being absent from St John’s for much of the 1840s. During these years the firm of James Tobin and Company (apparently under the management of Hutton, agent at St John’s) became heavily involved in the seal-fishery; from a single vessel in 1838 its ships numbered 15 in 1845, the largest fleet at St John’s. After 1846, however, the size of the St John’s fleet declined, and Tobin was particularly hard hit. In 1847 Laurence O’Brien*’s firm was the largest in the St John’s fleet, and by 1850 Tobin was no longer sending vessels to this fishery.

Paralleling the trend in the seal-fishery, the firm’s financial position was slipping in the 1840s. The 1846 fire in St John’s destroyed Tobin’s premises on Water Street. The next year fire again struck the firm and it lost its entire establishment on the south side of the harbour, valued at £3,000 to £4,000. This fire may have been the crippling blow, since it is possible that the Phoenix Assurance Company refused to honour the insurance policy on the buildings. In December 1849 the firm’s last outport establishment, fishing premises at Seldom-Come-By on Fogo Island, was sold.

His declining fortunes brought Tobin back to Newfoundland. In 1848 he returned also to the Executive Council when the system of government again became bicameral. The legislature opened its session on 19 Dec. 1848 in a new building owned by Tobin on Water Street which it continued to occupy until 1850. In March 1849 Tobin was being considered for the post of collector of customs and later in that year he was appointed a special stipendiary magistrate and collector of customs for St George’s on the French shore at an annual salary of £300. These lucrative appointments were ascribed to Tobin’s assistance in the successful election of the British under-secretary of state for the colonies, Sir Benjamin Hawes, in the Irish seat of Kinsale. Tobin’s appointment was not popular, however, since he was viewed in both St John’s and St George’s as an interloper. His independent methods aroused the English Protestant settlers on the coast: there were riots, legal actions (for example, Tobin was fined £150 in December 1852 for acting beyond his authority in arresting a planter who protested the imposition by Tobin of an unauthorized tax), and on one occasion Tobin was stoned. In July 1851 Robert John Pinsent* and Captain George Ramsay had been appointed justices of the peace and sent to St George’s by the government to investigate the dissatisfaction of the inhabitants. They recommended to Governor John Gaspard Le Marchant* that the Catholic Tobin be replaced by a Protestant who would be better able to control the situation. Le Marchant feared that such a move would probably be interpreted as sectarian interference, and it was not until 1853 that Governor Ker Baillie Hamilton abolished Tobin’s offices.

In April 1855 James Tobin presented himself as a candidate for election to the assembly for the district of Placentia-St Mary’s. He withdrew, however, when he was appointed to the Legislative Council. In August he became financial secretary in the Liberal administration of Philip Francis Little*, the first after the introduction of responsible government.

In March 1857 Tobin went to London with a joint Conservative-Liberal delegation, having O’Brien, Little, and Hugh William Hoyles also among its members, to protest against the draft fishery convention which had been signed by the British and French governments in January 1857 but which the Newfoundland legislature had refused to ratify. The convention had been designed to alleviate the difficulties arising between French and English fishermen, and eventually Little’s party concluded reluctantly that its terms would have to be accepted. But even this reluctant acceptance led Tobin to defect to the Conservatives. He was also thought to be the author of letters which appeared in the London Globe implying that the Liberal party was playing into the hands of the French by its interpretation of French rights under existing treaties and that the Roman Catholic bishop, John Thomas Mullock*, being an Irish Franciscan, also sided with the French. Governor Sir Alexander Bannerman* suspended Tobin from his posts in December 1858 after protests in the Executive Council and at public meetings in St John’s. Tobin tried in vain for a year to have himself reinstated but he seems to have retired to the British Isles shortly afterwards.

James Tobin became involved in the affairs of Newfoundland for the last time during the pre-emption scandal of 1873. Speculators in London hoped to profit by manipulating the price of shares of the New York, Newfoundland and London Telegraph Company and, through publicity and lobbying, they attempted to pressure the Newfoundland administration of Charles James Fox Bennett into exercising its right to pre-empt the company. The affair quite quickly turned into a fiasco of political intrigues and accusations between the parties led by Bennett and Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter*. Tobin’s role was essentially that of a propagandist, an agent for the speculators.

Tobin returned to England after this final incursion into Newfoundland life and remained there until his death.

David J. Davis

PANL, GN 1/3A, 1850–57, file 3, 7 Aug. 1855; GN 1/3A, 1858–59, file 1, 22 Dec. 1858. PRO, CO 194/150; 194/155; 194/167; 197/4. Md., Blue book, 1850. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 1881. Harbour Grace Standard (Harbour Grace, Nfld.), 1881. Newfoundlander, 1831, 1849, 1851. Public Ledger, 1851, 1855, 1858. Royal Gazette (St John’s), 1836–37, 1840–41, 1845, 1847. T. M. Punch, “Tobin genealogy,” Nova Scotia Hist. Quarterly (Halifax), 5 (1975):71–81. Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1972).

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Cite This Article

David J. Davis, “TOBIN, JAMES WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tobin_james_william_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tobin_james_william_11E.html
Author of Article:   David J. Davis
Title of Article:   TOBIN, JAMES WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   June 16, 2024