HRI Rugby Tennessee by Thomas Hughes
Thomas Hughes was the author of the immensely popular Victorian novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which was set in Rugby School, the well-known English “public school” that Hughes attended. In it, Hughes portrays the ideals of that school. Rugby created a generation of leaders with a sense of duty to their country; with a belief in the nobility of hard work, honor, and selflessness; and with a determination to work for the betterment of those less fortunate than themselves.
Hughes and many other “old boys” carried these values into their post-school lives in Victorian England. Thomas Hughes became an advocate for Britain’s first labor unions and workingmen’s colleges. He went on to serve in Parliament, and eventually planted his Christian Socialist ideals in the backwoods of Tennessee, where he established the utopian community named Rugby after his beloved alma mater.
In Rugby, Tennessee, Hughes describes the then-new community and his motivations in founding it. As Benita J. Howell points out in her lucid and informative new introduction, the book represents an important moment in late-Victorian English thought.
Hughes recounts the plight of England’s “Will Wimbles,” the underemployed second sons of the gentry, to whom he hoped to give a fresh start in Tennessee. Hughes also offers readers a vivid description of Tennessee’s northern Cumberland Plateau, including natural landmarks that can still be seen. And his impressions of “Life in Tennessee,” “The Natives,” and “The Negro Natives” reveal much about the Upland South on the eve of industrialization. Written in part to convince British investors that their project in America was making great progress, Rugby, Tennessee, depicts a unique Utopian moment in this remote area of Appalachian Tennessee-a moment whose legacy is justly celebrated to this day.
Benita J. Howell is Professor of Anthropology Emerita at the University of Tennessee. She is the author of Folklife along the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River and is editor of Culture, Environment, and Conservation in the Appalachian South.