Thomas Hughes

Rugby, Tennessee

Thomas HughesThomas 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.

Thomas Hughes

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.

Hughes 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 mater.3 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 the clergy.4 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 Wimbles.”

Rugby, Tennessee

When 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 its president.5

Counties in Tennessee with Rugby Holdings 

Rollover to see Rugby counties from this 1895 map of Tennessee

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.

3 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): 665.

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.


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