Wednesday, June 19, 2013

An Historic English Village in Eastern Tennessee

Since my last blog was about eating lunch in an historic English/American village in East Tennessee, I guess I should focus on our actual goal for this back roads Saturday drive in the country.  The real objective of our day trip was to visit and tour that historic village…Rugby, Tennessee.

The town is located in Morgan County just south of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation area on the Cumberland Plateau.  Rugby was founded in 1880 by English author Thomas Hughes.  He was an English attorney, a Member of Parliament and author.  He wrote a number of books but he is most famous for his children’s books, especially “Tom Brown’s School Days”.  This book was based on his brother’s character and Thomas’s experiences at Rugby School in England…  

Following lunch, Laurie and I went into the old Rugby Printing Works.  The original Rugby Print Shop was mysteriously torn down many years ago... No one knows exactly when, why or who tore it down.  The building shown above was actually moved to Rugby from nearby Deer Lodge Tennessee.  It was built in Deer Lodge ca. 1885.  It has been totally restored and it was open for visitors during our visit.  The docent on duty was very informative and friendly…he’s a volunteer who makes the hour and a half drive to Rugby every other Saturday from his home.  We also picked up a couple of free signs that were printed in the shop…the most important of these reads “Beware of the Cat”. 
This home is adjacent to Rugby’s Visitor’s Center.  It called the Percy Cottage.  This reconstruction was historically rebuilt in 1976-77 on the original foundation.  It was originally built in 1884 and it’s furnished for year around guest lodging. 
Rugby was built as an experimental utopian colony. While Hughes's experiment largely failed, (more on that later), a small community lingered at Rugby throughout the 20th century.  In the 1960s, residents, friends and descendants of Rugby began restoring the original design and layout of the community, preserving surviving structures and reconstructing others. Rugby's Victorian architecture and picturesque setting have made it a popular tourist attraction.  Despite its remoteness, 65,000 + visitors per year visit the community.  Rugby's historic area has been listed under the name Rugby Colony on the National Register of Historic Places.  It is an historic district.  

This is one view of Kingstone Lisle…Thomas Hughes’ 1884 home.  Its design is based on an ‘English Rural Style’ cottage designed by Andrew Jackson Downing, an American landscape and architectural designer. Downing is considered by many to be the Father of American Landscape Architecture.  For more on Downing and his work, just go to
The Rugby ‘experiment’ stemmed from of the social and economic conditions of Victorian England, where the practice of primogeniture, (i.e., the eldest son gets almost everything), and an economic depression left many of the "second sons" of the English gentry jobless and idle.  Hughes envisioned Rugby as a colony where England's second sons would have a chance to own land and be free of social and moral ills that plagued late-19th century English cities.  The idea was that the colony would reject Late Victorian materialism in favor of the Christian socialist ideals of equality and cooperation Hughes espoused in his book, ‘Tom Brown's School Days’.

Kingstone Lisle was on the tour route.  This frontal view shows that painting is underway and that “Historic” is actively working to maintain the village.  Our tour docent was very nice and informative as well.  I was happy because she didn’t dwell on every little detail but she could answer any of our questions. 
Hughes didn’t stay here very often.  Most of his time was spent back in England.  However, he did move personal belonging into the house…and they are still in place.  The cottage is furnished with many original Rugby pieces and it is painted in the original colors. 

This is Christ Church Episcopal…an example of ‘carpenter gothic’ architecture.  It was built in 1887, using local pine, walnut and poplar.  It is also on the standard tour offered by Historic Rugby.  The church body itself was established in 1880 with early services being held in the schoolhouse.
Rugby began as a project of the Boston’s Board of Aid to Land Ownership, which focused on helping unemployed urban craftsmen relocate to rural areas.  In 1878, the President of the Board of Aid, Franklin Webster Smith, visited the Cumberland Plateau on a new route of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad.  He and an agent for that railroad identified the future site of Rugby.  They were impressed with the virgin forests, clear air and scenery.  The railroad agent then secured options on hundreds of thousands of acres on the plateau and the process of securing land titles was initiated.
However, when Smith got back to Boston to recruit families for the move, economic conditions had improved and most families were no longer interested in relocating.  Thomas Hughes had met Smith through his friend, poet James Russell Lowell and Smith knew that Hughes was interested in building a utopian community.  Upon learning of the land acquisition and the town site, Hughes formed a partnership in England and then they bought out the Board of Aid.

This photo is a bit dark… Flash cameras weren’t permitted in the church or any of the other buildings...and it was dark in here.  FYI, the church’s reed organ, built in 1849, is one of the oldest in the United States.  Our guide told us that it had just recently stopped working.  She also told us that she is a member of Christ Church and that the congregation has met here regularly since 1887. (She also told us that she believed that there were at least 242 churches in the county!)
Smith had chosen the Rugby’s site for its resort-like qualities, even though it was 7 miles from the nearest railroad stop.  The colony’s first structure was what is now called Pioneer Cottage.  It was built in early 1880 and it’s now rented to tourists who want to stay in town.  The first wave of colonists built tennis and croquet courts and built a walkway to a nearby juncture where local streams came together.  They also built several homes as well as the 3-story Tabard Inn, named after an inn featured in the Canterbury Tales. 
Thomas Hughes attended the colony's "opening" on October 5, 1880, and gave a speech that laid out his plans for Rugby.  All colonists would be required to invest $5 in the commissary, thus ensuring public ownership. Personal freedoms were guaranteed, although the sale of alcohol was banned.  The colony would also build an Episcopal church, but the building could be used by any denomination.

This is the Thomas Hughes Library.  It appears just as it was when it opened in 1882.  It was one of the earliest free libraries in the South.
Publications such as the New York Times and Harper's Weekly, as well as various main stream London publications, all followed the colony's progress. Rugby also published its own newspaper, ‘The Rugbeian’.  Several colonists even formed a Library and Reading Room Society.  In the summer of 1881, a typhoid outbreak killed seven colonists and forced the Tabard Inn to close for cleansing, but the colony recovered. By 1884, Rugby had over 400 residents, 65 frame public buildings and houses, a tennis team, a social club, and a literary and dramatic society. In 1885, Rugby even established a university, Arnold School, named after Hughes’ former Rugby School headmaster back in England, Thomas Arnold.

This photo of Thomas Hughes hangs in Rugby’s Library.  He was born in Uffington England in 1922.  Perhaps one reason he was so interested in the welfare of ‘second sons’ was that he was himself the second son of a prominent English editor and he had 4 younger brothers too… He became a dedicated social reformer with an interest in Christian socialism.  Hughes was involved in the formation of some early trade unions and helped finance the printing of various Liberal publications. 

One of the most interesting facts about the Hughes Library is that it is virtually intact in all respects.  It still contains the 7,000 original books that were donated to the library.  Many of them are first editions and/or are very rare.  The oldest volume in the library dates to 1687.  The books were furnished by a Boston bookseller who received them as donations for Rugby from various American publishers.
Anyone wishing to use the library for research may do so by contacting the Historic Rugby organization. Gloves must be used when perusing the volumes and all researchers are accompanied by a Historic Rugby volunteer.
The library is also on the standard guided tour… Prices for the tour are very reasonable and a short movie about Rugby’s history is included.  Other than the print shop and a couple of gift shops, you may only enter the historic buildings if you go on the guided tour.

Shopping anyone?  For those who find a trip pointless unless there’s an opportunity to spend a little money on gifts or souvenirs, welcome to the Rugby Commissary!  We picked up a little jam, a bit of jewelry from a local craftsman and notecards from a local artist. 
This building is a faithful reconstruction of the original Rugby Co-Op Commissary.  Of course, in the old days, the store sold a wide variety of merchandise ranging from clothing to plowshares… Profits from this store go to Historic Rugby’s upkeep and improvements. 

Newbury House was Rugby’s first boarding house. It opened in early 1880 prior to Thomas Hughes’ purchase of The Board of Aid and his subsequent colonization effort.  Lodging was available here well into the 20th Century… It has been restored and modernized and is once again open for overnight guests.  Rates run from $70.00 a night double occupancy (weeknight - shared bath) to $130.00 per night for the suite.  As I noted earlier, Percy Cottage is also available for overnight stays.  In addition, another home, Pioneer Cottage, is also available for lodging.  All lodging in Rugby is operated by Historic Rugby.
So what happened to Rugby?  The settlement struggled over land titles.  Options had been acquired for almost 350,000 acres but many of the Plateau’s early Appalachian settlers became suspicious of the development and they refused to sell their property.  The lawsuits dragged on for years.  Many colonists gave up and moved away.  In addition, the town site had been selected for its potential as a mountain resort and not farming.  The soil was poor indeed.  The 1881 typhoid outbreak slowed development…but in 1884, the popular Tabard Hotel burned to the ground.  This halted Rugby’s growing tourist economy and damaged the Board of Aid’s credit standing.
There was one other ‘little’ problem with the premise of Rugby… The English settlers, those ‘second sons’ who settled Rugby, primarily came from well-to-do families and they weren’t used to farming, cutting trees or, for that matter, any hard labor in general.  They just weren’t well suited to establish a viable working town…or colony.

This home is named Ruralia.  Not much is known about its early history except that it was built around 1884.  The current owner has fully restored it.
Frustrated by the colony's slow development, the Board of Aid's backers replaced colony director.  An attempt was made to establish a tomato canning operation in 1883, but after the cannery was constructed, colonists failed to grow enough tomatoes to keep it operational. Newspapers began to ridicule Rugby and the New York Times claimed that Hughes was planning to abandon the colony. 
In 1887, the deaths of a number of prominent colonists— including Hughes's mother, Margaret who had moved there to support her son — led to the departure of most of Rugby's original settlers. Hughes made his last annual visit to the colony that year and The Rugbeian ceased publication.  By 1900, the company had sold its Cumberland Plateau holdings.
In 1966, local preservationists formed ‘Historic Rugby’, a non-profit group dedicated to restoring and maintaining the communities surviving historic structures.  The organization maintains more than 15 buildings and there are many privately owned homes in the village that date back to the Victorian era.  Their next big project is the restoration of Uffington, Hughes mother’s home in the village.  We enjoyed our visit and we would recommend Rugby to anyone who appreciates history, preservation and beauty.  To learn more, you can go to
Just click on any of the photographs to enlarge them…
Thanks for coming along with us on our little drive down the back roads of Eastern Tennessee.
Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. Dear David, Such a nice visit and it looks like the weather was beautiful for the visit.
    It is remarkable that the library still has the original books.
    The church looks very beautiful and amazing that it houses the oldest organ. Blessings, Catherine

  2. We've been thru Rugby a couple of times but never made it a destination to stop and explore.

  3. What lovely place to visit David, I love the little houses, the Church, and all look lovely!Love the library too LOL

  4. That's a great looking house. I am relocating from NJ to TN for work and I've been researching the real estate market and looking into green homes in Tennessee. I really like the idea of solar power and renewable energy.