J. & M. Tobin as a firm, and each of the brothers respectively, played active roles in Halifax’s commercial community. Likewise they were engaged in the support of charitable causes both within the Catholic Church and for causes at large. Their father Michael Sr. had been a charter member of the Charitable Irish Society which was founded in Halifax in 1786. His sons followed in his footsteps with this philanthropic and social institution. Michael Jr. would eventually serve several terms as President of the Society. James Tobin’s father-in-law had also belonged to the Charitable Irish, becoming embroiled in an investigation for being overly generous in drawing on Society funds to provide bread for the poor in 1792.
In 1817, concern for impoverished immigrants, notably Irish newcomers, led several leading merchants to approach the government for relief and aid in settlement plans. This action was backed by the Charitable Irish Society.
The plan was to send immigrants to parts of the province where labourers and mechanics were needed to supply local needs, providing employment for the new immigrants and giving them a chance to build up sufficient capital to gain a stable economic foothold in Nova Scotia. An initial letter appeared in the Acadian Recorder on August 9th sought information from throughout the province about the types of workers needed. The letter stated as well that loans might then be raised to assist the immigrants. The main signatories were James Fraser, John Liddell, Michael Tobin and Samuel Cunard. Support came by way of financial contributions from the Lieutenant-Governor, Council and House of Assembly. Along with several others, Tobin and Cunard went on to set up soup kitchens to assist the starving poor of Halifax in 1820. In 1827, James Tobin became one of the contributors to funds to be used to hire the poor in winter time, a season of hardship when dock work and associated truckage, etc. ceased or slowed considerably.
Also in 1817, J. & M. Tobin found that their Newfoundland trading ties led to their playing a part in the aftermath of the disastrous 1817 November fires in St. John’s (two separate outbreaks) which left over two thousand persons homeless. Appeals for subscriptions went out from London and met with response in Halifax, St. John and elsewhere in British North America. A letter dated December 26, 1817 was addressed to the Tobins and published shortly after by them in the Acadian Recorder:
I Beg reference to the annexed proceedings and appeal, on behalf of the distressed sufferers by fire at Newfoundland, and by direction of the Committee have to request the favour of your giving them the necessary publicity, and promoting a Subscription at Halifax in aid of the general fund. I have the honour to be, Gentlemen, Your obedient servant, James Henry Attwood, Secretary. J. & M. Tobin will be happy to receive Subscriptions in behalf of the sufferers at Newfoundland. Halifax, 6th April 1818.
Seven years later they would be equally taken up in the fundraising for survivors of the Great Miramichi Fire of 1825. That legendary disaster received very widespread press at the time, and meetings and relief efforts were undertaken throughout Halifax. The first gathering of collections from those efforts yielded £1200, and a committee was formed to oversee its proper distribution. Members of that committee included the following: S. Deblois, Samuel Cunard, G. N. Russell, John Clarke and James Tobin.
Thus charity, as well as commerce and religion played a large part in the lives of the Tobin brothers. Their philanthropic efforts were the practical side of the Biblical injunction that to whom much is given much is expected. Both men would continue to be active in charitable works, both religious and otherwise until their deaths.