Named after Thomas Hughes’ alma mater in England, Rugby was originally conceived as a class-free, agricultural community for younger sons of English gentry and others wishing to start a new life in America.
At its peak in the mid-1880s, some 300 people lived in the colony. More than 60 buildings of Victorian design graced the townscape on East Tennessee’s beautiful Cumberland Plateau. By 1900 most colonists had left for other places, but we are fortunate that enough folks remained in Rugby to ensure that it survived to present day. Please read more about the fascinating history of Rugby under the heading History of Village.
Today Rugby is both a living community and a fascinating public historic site run by Historic Rugby offering visitors a museum, historic building tours, lodging, stores and a full service restaurant. Many original buildings still stand, nestled between the Big South Fork National Recreation Area and the Rugby State Natural Area, surrounded by rugged river gorges and historic trails. Historic Rugby has been open to the public since 1966 and is nationally recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Nestled among tall pines and oaks just south of the Big South Fork National Park, lies Historic Rugby, Tennessee; a British-founded village whose Utopian dream of a better life in America has never quite died. This is the story of the Rugby Colony- an aspiring Utopia.
British author and social reformer Thomas Hughes, famous for his classic novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, dedicated the Rugby Colony amid great fanfare on October 5, 1880. He envisioned this new community as a place where those who wished could build a strong agricultural community through cooperative enterprise, while maintaining a cultured, Christian lifestyle, free of the rigid class distinctions that prevailed in Britain.
The idea for the colony grew out of Hughes’ concern for the younger sons of landed British families. Under the custom of primogeniture, the eldest son usually inherited everything, leaving the younger sons with only a few socially accepted occupations in England or its empire. In America, Hughes believed, these young men’s energies and talents could be directed toward community building through agriculture. The town site and surrounding lands were chosen in part because the newly built Cincinnati-Southern Railroad had just completed a major line to Chattanooga opening up this part of the Cumberland Plateau.
During the 1880′s, Rugby both flourished and floundered, attracting wide-spread attention on two continents and hundreds of hopeful settlers from both Britain and other parts of America. By 1884, Hughes’ vision seemed close to becoming a thriving reality. An English agriculturalist had been employed to help train new colonists. Some 65-70 graceful Victorian buildings had been constructed on the town site, and over 300 residents enjoyed the rustic yet culturally refined atmosphere of this “New Jerusalem.” Literary societies and drama clubs were established. Lawn tennis grounds were laid out and used frequently. Colonists and visitors enjoyed rugby football, horseback riding, croquet and swimming in the clear flowing rivers surrounding the town site. The grand Tabard Inn, named for the hostelry in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, soon became the social center of the colony. The Thomas Hughes Public Library, with thousands of volumes donated by admirers and publishers, was the pride of the colony. Rugby printed its own weekly newspaper. General stores, stables, sawmills, boarding houses, a drug store, dairy and butcher shop were all in operation. During this heyday period two trains a day ran to Cincinnati, providing a link to goods, services, and entertainment for the Rugby colonists and the town’s many visitors. Press in both America and Europe carried frequent updates on the colony’s progress and problems.
But a typhoid epidemic, which claimed seven lives in 1881, did nothing for the colony’s utopian image or its credit rating. In addition, financial troubles, land title problems and unusually severe winters gradually brought about Rugby’s decline. The Tabard Inn burned in 1884, its replacement meeting the same fate in 1899. Thomas Hughes – whose aged mother Margaret Hughes, his brother Hastings and niece Emily, lived in Rugby during its early years – managed to spend only a month or so each year in the colony. He poured more than $75,000 of his own money into the effort to build the community in the wilderness. But in spite of Rugby’s obvious problems and failures, Hughes never gave up hope for the colony’s future. In a letter to some of the remaining settlers shortly before his death in 1896, Hughes wrote poignantly: “I can’t help feeling and believing that good seed was sown when Rugby was founded and someday the reapers, whoever they may be, will come along with joy bearing heavy sheaves with them.”
By 1900, most of the original colonists had left, many for other parts of America. Though Rugby declined, it was never deserted. Individual residents, some children of original colonists, struggled over many decades to keep its fascinating heritage alive, its surviving buildings and lands cared for and its story told.