Hughes was a prominent, nineteenth-century British author and social
reformer who came to the Cumberland Plateau in east Tennessee to
begin an utopian community to combat a cultural crisis he saw emerging
amongst the young men of the British aristocracy. As the father
of nine children, five of them boys, he knew the difficulty they
had finding work within the social constraints of England’s “squirearchy.”
Influenced greatly by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hughes felt that working
the land was an honorable pursuit for educated men. In an address
to the public school children at the Rugby School in England—for
which his colony is named—Hughes told the adolescents, “For those
who find after leaving school that they have no such outlook (for
“honest” work) in England, I undoubtedly believe that they can’t
do better than go back to the land.”1 Hughes founded Rugby to create an “honorable”
career alternative for sons of aristocratic English families in
the United States.
Hughes’s interest in reform began when he was a student at the
Rugby School. In the late-eighteenth
and early-nineteenth centuries every British secondary school and
university only accepted members of the Anglican Church, and refused
admission of children from different religious backgrounds. By the
mid-nineteenth century, reformers attempted to remedy the problem
and open the public school doors to a more diverse cross-section
of boys. Thomas Arnold implemented this practice, along with other
aspects of educational reform at his Rugby
School. As Arnold's student, Thomas Hughes wanted to continue
implementing change initiated at Rugby in other schools. Through
his Rugby experiences, Hughes felt he could sow seeds of reform
by writing a series of books beginning with the novel, Tom
Brown's Schooldays in 1857.2 The
success of his novel brought him increased notoriety in the United
States. By that time Hughes was already known in northern intellectual
circles because of his political views as an abolitionist.
was not only active writing, but served as a politician and reformer.
He founded The Working Men's
College in London and attempted to break down class barriers
at Oxford University, his alma
Hughes also served as a Liberal member of Parliament, a judge,
and Queen's Counselor. He worked in the Cooperative and Christian-Socialist
movement, establishing labor associations and cooperatives throughout
Great Britain. Despite his efforts to dissolve barriers for the
working class in labor and education, the primogeniture system of
the British gentry bothered him immensely. He viewed it as the last
remaining vestige of the Middle Ages. The practice gave the oldest
son of wealthy families the entire inheritance—land, money, and
valuables. This left younger educated sons with few “respectable”
highly-competitive career positions such as in medicine, law, or
Many of these younger sons attended the public schools, where
Hughes observed their plight, and sometimes their folly. Hughes
set out to remedy this problem and searched for a suitable settlement
for these young, genteel, educated men nicknamed “Will Wimbles.”
Read what Thomas
Hughes wrote about these younger sons, and the crisis of the “Will
he first visited the United States in 1870 to explore the possibilities
of beginning a colony, Hughes received a celebrity’s welcome. Many
dignitaries, including the Secretary of State Hamilton Fish, Charles
Sumner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received
him as their guest. He toured the United States making numerous
contacts who later assisted him in finding land for his settlement.
The most important connections were with a group of Boston businessmen
who formed the Board of Aid to Land Ownership in 1877 and located
unoccupied farming lands in northeast Tennessee to promote migration
from the crowded Northeast. They gave up the venture due to an upturn
in the economy and offered the land to Hughes for his experiment.
Hughes liked the Cumberland Plateau not only for its agricultural
potential and climate, but because the region supported the Union
during the Civil War. A coalition of British and American investors
and took over the project in the late 1879 with Thomas Hughes as
By June of the next year the organization acquired nearly 50,000
acres in Morgan, Scott, and Fentress counties to resell to Rugby
colonists. To buy a parcel, a settler put down one-third of the
price and then paid off the rest within two years. This was an attempt
to stop the cycle of primogeniture, allowing younger aristocratic
sons to own land. However, the largest number of settlers living
at Rugby was approximately four hundred in 1884, many of whom were
British and American families, not single men. Single, British men
visited Rugby but never took up permanent residence.6
To attract settlers and financial backers, Hughes knew he needed
to advertise his new community. Harper’s Weekly published
two positive articles about the new settlement and romanticized
engravings of Rugby life. Hughes’s prominence prompted Harper’s
interest in Rugby and felt the colony was worth watching, because
of its value in rebuilding the post-Civil War South and because
of Hughes’s choice of the United States for his community.
Firstly, because it will induce, if successful, a most desirable
class of settlers. Secondly, because it will introduce a new element
of vitality into the South, opening up new lands, and doing more
towards regeneration of the region than all of the legislation of
the past fifteen years; and lastly that it is a practical admission,
by men whose judgment every Briton respects, of the superiority
of the United States as a place of residence over Australia, the
Cape of Good Hope, or Canada.7
Hughes wrote letters from Rugby to the British paper, The Spectator,
and the Board of Aid to Land Ownership also distributed a Rugby
handbook in 1884 with engravings from Harper’s Weekly to
attract more settlers. While he chose the United States for Rugby,
Thomas Hughes never took up permanent residence.
Hughes poured his own, limited, funds into Rugby but never found
immense financial or philosophical support in England. The English
public schools did not send young men to Tennessee in droves as
he hoped. Rugby Tennessee also experienced repeated tragedies that
drained Hughes’s resources, such as a typhoid epidemic during the
summer of 1881 and two fires at Rugby’s hotel, The Tabard Inn.
Though Thomas did not take up permanent residence in Rugby, his
mother did, but soon after she died in 1887 Thomas decided to leave
the colony for good. By 1892 he sold his personal plots of land
and disassociated officially from his utopian colony.
1 Thomas Hughes,
Rugby Tennessee Being Some Account of the Settlement Founded
on the Cumberland Plateau by the Board of Aid to Land Ownership,
Limited (London: Macmillan, 1881); reprint (Philadelphia: Porcupine
Press, 1975), 47; 24-5; 135.
2 Brian Stagg,
The Distant Eden: Tennessee's Rugby Colony (n.p.: Paylor
Publications, 1975), 1.
W.H.G. Armytage, “Public School Paradise,” Queens' Quarterly57
(Winter 1950-51): 530.
4 Stagg, The
Distant Eden, 2-3.
5 Ibid., 3; “The New Rugby,” Harper's Weekly 24 (Oct. 16, 1880):
6 Armytage, “Public School
Paradise,” 531-2; W. Calvin Dickinson, “Whose Sons Settled Rugby?
A Study of the Population at Rugby Tennessee, in the 1880s,” Tennessee
Historical Quarterly 52, (1993): 194, 197.
7 “The New Rugby,”
Harper's Weekly, 27 (November 6, 1880): 710.