A cluster of Victorian English houses is an unexpected sight along a rural two-lane Tennessee road. With gingerbread and gables, they look like imports from a Charles Dickens novel. In fact, Rugby was as unexpected a Tennessee town as its architecture looks today.
The Rugby Colony was founded as a high-minded attempt to right social wrongs: the utopian community would provide a home and work for the “second sons” of the English gentry and it would reject late Victorian materialism in favor of the Christian socialist ideals of equality and cooperation.
Thomas Hughes, the founder of the Rugby experiment, was the best-selling author of the 1857 novel, Tom Brown’s School Days. In that book, Hughes espoused the ideals of Christian socialism, namely the cooperative ownership of community businesses. By the 1860s, he had become disenchanted with the materialism of late Victorian England. And, he was disheartened by the fact that the talents of many of England’s younger sons were wasted because of the medieval system of primogeniture, in which the oldest son inherited all of the family’s land and left younger sons jobless and idle. Together with American partners, Hughes secured land in Tennessee. In 1880, he and his fellow idealists established Rugby as a place where England’s second sons would have a chance to own land. And, they would be free of the social and moral ills that plagued late-19th-century English cities.
By 1884, the Rugby Colony (named after the school that inspired Hughes’ novel) boasted over 400 residents, 65 frame public buildings and houses, a tennis team, a social club, and a literary and dramatic society.
It might have succeeded in a different place, with a different population. The land where the colony located, on the Cumberland Plateau of northeastern Tennessee, is thin and poor. Farming this land would require strenuous physical labor, but the second sons of the English gentry were disinclined to work.
There was a typhoid outbreak that killed a number of residents. Rugby was beset with lawsuits over land titles. The colony tried to establish a tomato canning operation in 1883, but after the cannery was constructed, colonists failed to grow enough tomatoes to keep it running. By 1890, most Rugby residents had abandoned the place and its high ideals.
What they left behind is a delightful collection of Victorian buildings, including an Episcopal church, a schoolhouse, a library, a commissary and a number of private homes. Constructed between 1880 and 1887, they share the picturesque elements of the Carpenter Gothic style.
Among them is The Christ Church Episcopal, whose reed organ, built in 1849, is one of the oldest in the United States. The Christ Church parish has met here regularly since 1887. The Thomas Hughes Library, the most unchanged of the Rugby buildings, has 7,000 volumes collected by a Boston bookseller, who donated them to Rugby’s Library and Reading Room Society with the stipulation they name the new library for Hughes. The library still contains most of its original collection; the oldest volume dates to 1687.
In 1966, preservationists formed Historic Rugby, a non-profit group dedicated to restoring and maintaining the community’s surviving historic structures. In 1972, Rugby’s historic area was listed as a historic district under the name Rugby Colony on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, Rugby’s charming buildings and quirky history have become a draw for tourists, who take tours hosted by The Historic Rugby Foundation. They eat at the Harrow Road Cafe, shop at the Commissary and take part in festivals, car shows, formal teas and seasonal celebrations. Fortunately, they do not have to grow tomatoes.