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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tobin, Alphonsus Vincent (Phonse) (1905–1993)

by Robert Mulhall

This article was published online in 2018

Alphonsus Vincent Tobin (1905–1993), funeral director and football administrator, was born on 23 August 1905 in Melbourne, third of six surviving children of Irish-born Thomas Tobin, labourer, and his Victorian-born second wife Alice, née O’Dowd. Phonse’s twin brother, Bernard, died two days later. His father struggled financially and the family moved frequently. For a brief period they lived at an undertaker’s premises where Thomas worked as an assistant while Alice sewed casket linings, cleaned, and attended to customers.

A ‘chronic truant’ in his youth (Tobin 2016), Phonse was sent to St Augustine’s Orphanage, Geelong, for sixteen months in August 1916 in an attempt to correct his aversion to schooling. He finished his education at St Monica’s Christian Brothers’ School, Essendon, making the prize list for his class (1918). Following his compulsory training and working as a storeman, he spent two years in the Permanent Military Forces (1925–26), serving with the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery at Queenscliff. He was discharged at his own request and joined Melbourne’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade. A fast runner, he competed professionally for ten years in footraces, winning events in Melbourne and country Victoria (Benalla, 1928; St Arnaud, 1930). On 14 September 1935 at Holy Rosary Church, Kensington, he married Veronica Mary Crough, a typiste.

In February 1934 Tobin and three of his brothers—Leo, Thomas, and Kevin—had established A. V. Tobin funeral directors. They scraped together fifty pounds each to rent premises, purchase stock and equipment, and buy a second-hand hearse. The firm commenced trading in North Melbourne and was incorporated two years later. For a time Phonse was the only brother fully engaged in the venture. Leo joined the company in 1937, Tom and Kevin followed in 1939. All played key roles in the business and contributed to its growth and development.

Active in amateur theatricals, Phonse had a flair for showmanship. At local pubs on Friday nights, his storytelling abilities and congenial attitude served him in good stead with the Catholic working-class community in which the business flourished. His involvement in greyhound and horse racing also provided a ready forum for his networking skills. He became the best known of the brothers. In the late 1930s he joined the committee of the North Melbourne Football Club and was made a life member in 1946. President from 1954 to 1957, he was the driving force behind the club’s adoption of the Kangaroo as the mascot, moving away from the sobriquet ‘shinboners.’

A distressing episode for Tobin had begun in March 1940. Following a club excursion aboard the PS Weeroona, he claimed that he was incorrectly identified by police as the cause of a disturbance. He was found guilty of behaving in an offensive manner, using indecent language, and resisting a policeman, and fined three pounds for each offence. Seeking to clear his name and counter the adverse publicity, he brought charges of perjury against three officers. All were acquitted. The policemen then successfully served Tobin with a writ seeking damages for malicious prosecution. Unable to pay the £2,359 damages awarded against him, he was declared bankrupt in January 1942. He would not be formally discharged until March 1971.

Tobin was forced by the laws of bankruptcy to stand down as director of the company. He sold his shares to his brother Kevin, but remained an employee of the firm. By 1944 the name of the company changed to Tobin Bros Pty Ltd. Business continued to increase and by the late 1960s it conducted more than two thousand funerals annually. Sons of each of the founding brothers also joined the firm. Phonse retired in 1975. Having resumed as a director of the company, he remained in that role until 1985. Following his personal edict of always being active, he secured several small roles in television dramas for Crawford Productions Pty Ltd, and was an energetic member of the Rotary Club of North Melbourne.

Predeceased by his wife in April 1993, Tobin died at St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, on 28 July that year and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. The couple were survived by their daughter and three sons. Tobin Brothers would remain one of the most recognised, respected funeral companies in Victoria. In 2018 the company employed over two hundred people and operated from twenty-five locations. As the business writer Alan Kohler observed, theirs was ‘a family business that got more concentrated as time went on, not more diverse, as most do’ (2012).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Dowling, Gerard. The North Story: The History of the North Melbourne Football Club. Sydney: Playright Publishing Pty Ltd, 1997
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Footy and Funerals.’ 30 July 1993, 79
  • Kohler, Alan. ‘Four Brothers and a Funeral.’ Business Spectator, 22 November 2012. Accessed 13 April 2017. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. B160, 3/42
  • O’Callaghan, Mary-Louise.Staying Alive is a Matter of Interest Says the Man Who Has Buried 12,000.’ Age (Melbourne), 23 December 1981, 3
  • Shine, Denise Tobin. The Undertakers’ Mother. Melbourne: Killaghy Publishing, 2012
  • Tobin, Des. Interview by the author, Tobin Brothers Office, Malvern, Victoria, 6 September 2016
  • Tobin, Des. Tobin Brothers: The Story of a Family Business. [North Melbourne: Tobin Brothers], 1987

Additional Resources

Citation details

Robert Mulhall, 'Tobin, Alphonsus Vincent (Phonse) (1905–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 10 August 2020.

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