THOMAS HUGHES (1822-1896)
The founding of the Rugby colony in 1880 was the living fulfillment of Englishman Thomas Hughes' lifelong goals and ideals. Hughes was born in Uffington, Berkshire, in the Vale of the White Horse, on October 22, 1822. He was the second of seven sons of John Hughes and Margaret Wilkinson. Tom's oldest brother, George, about whom he wrote Memoir of a Brother, was a great influence on his life. Especially important is the fact that Tom attended Rugby School, a well-known British public school, whose headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold, was father of Matthew Arnold, poet and scholar. Dr. Arnold made extensive progress in British school reform. The strong impressions he made on Hughes' life and ideals were immortalized in his most famous novel, Tom Brown's School Days. Though Hughes often denied it, Tom Brown was clearly semi-autobiographical. (A school established briefly at Rugby, Tennessee, was named Arnold School, and the name of the colony, of course, came from the English institution.)
After graduation, Tom Hughes went on to Oriel College, Oxford, where he excelled in sports more than in academics, but received his B. A. in 1845. He read law at Lincoln's Inn and at the Inner Temple, London, both inns of court and roughly the British equivalent of American law schools. He was called to the Bar in 1847, and in the same year married Francis (Fanny) Ford. He was twice elected a member of Parliament and achieved designation as a Queen's Councilor.
He early became interested in Christian Socialism, a religious/philosophical movement founded by Frederick Dennison Maurice and Charles Kingsley. The movement's proponents sought to apply Christian principles to political and social concerns. Under its influence, Hughes was a co-founder of the London Working Men's College, where he taught boxing and was principal from 1872 to 1883. He helped start some of England's first trade unions and was deeply involved in efforts to form cooperatives to benefit the working class. His introduction to Christian Socialism seems to have reinforced his innate or inherited idealistic tendencies, which became increasingly influential on his literary, as well as his political, career.
Thomas Hughes best known literary work, Tom Brown's School Days (1857), was the archetypical schoolboy novel, and brought him (largely unsought) fame and a small fortune, much of which he later invested in the Rugby colony. The success of the book was the financial making of London's Macmillan & Co. publishers, which later expanded to America.
Many other books followed, including a sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford, never as successful as the first; religious works such as A Layman's Faith; a local color novel, The Scouring of the White Horse; several biographies of famous Victorian men such as David Livingstone, and, in 1881, RUGBY, TENNESSEE: Being Some Account of the Settlement Founded on The Cumberland Plateau.
Thomas Hughes was one of the few influential Englishmen to publically support the Union cause during the American Civil War, due to his strong anti-slavery beliefs. He made his first visit to the United States in 1871 on a northeastern speaking tour which sought to "heal the breach" between England and America in the aftermath of the war. It was during this visit that he finally met in person his long-time friend and correspondent, the poet James Russell Lowell, and such influential American businessmen as John Murray Forbes. For the rest of his life he praised America as a land of opportunity. He was so impressed with such booming cities as Chicago, that he helped found their public library in the 1870's in the aftermath of the great Chicago fire. The library today still has a Thomas Hughes Children's Room.
Yet the fullest flowering of Hughes' idealistic principles was in the establishment of his Rugby, Tennessee, colony. Due to an economic recession in Britain in the late 1870's, the younger sons of British upper class families, usually graduates of prestigious public schools such as Eton, Westminster, and Rugby, could not find openings in the socially accepted professions such as law, medicine and the clergy. Hughes felt it would be helpful and profitable for these young men to take up agricultural pursuits on the far-distant American frontier, working hard with their hands, rather than "starve like gentlemen" in the British Isles.
Hence the Rugby colony was formally opened with worldwide acclaim on October 5, 1880. Hughes intended it to be a cooperative, class-free society which embraced the best America offered while retaining English culture and customs. Although there are various reasons suggested for its ultimate failure, such as management centered in far-away London more than a century before the invention of fax machines, the one of the main reasons was undoubtedly the lack of farming and related backgrounds, skills, and interests of the younger colonists. Tom Hughes' exaggerated notions of the realities of human nature likewise made him easy prey to Yankee exploiters. For example, more seems to have been paid for Rugby land than it was actually worth. But rather than scoff at Rugby's founder's apparent failure to adequately judge human nature, it is perhaps wiser to admire and honor his Utopian community building effort as a triumph of highest principles.
Adding to Rugby's less than ideal prospects, Hughes was unable to actually live in the colony for family and business reasons. He did visit for as much as a month every year except one during the first seven years of the colony's life. He had a home built in Rugby, Kingstone Lisle, to which he once wrote of hoping to retire, but his wife's health and pressing business and public service concerns prevented it. His elderly mother, his niece and his brother Hastings Hughes, all made Rugby, Tennessee, their home and helped keep it going in its early years.
Though the colony was viable for less than a decade, Tom Hughes never gave up hope that it would again flourish. In 1896, near the end of his life, he wrote in a letter to his old Rugby friend and business associate Robert Walton: "I can't help feeling and believing that good seed was sown when Rugby was founded, and that someday the reapers, whoever they may be, will come along with joy, bearing heavy sheaves with them."
At age 73, Tom Hughes died of heart failure in 1896 at Brighton on England's South coast, and is buried in a cemetery there. He was on his way to the Continent to recuperate from serious illness.