British socialists establish utopia in Tennessee backwoods

Sharing is caring!

Rugby-Early-ColonistsRugby Colony, Tennessee; October 6, 1880: ”We are about to open a new town here.  A new center of human life, human thought, and human activities… in this strangely beautiful solitude.”

With those words, Thomas Hughes, noted British author and avowed Christian socialist, dedicated the Rugby Colony here in northeastern Tennessee, yesterday, amid great fanfare, applause, and adoration among the 200 people who are about to make this colony their utopian dream come true—their utopian home.

Since it is being populated primarily by British immigrants, it is being described by some as “the last British colony in America.”

A prerequisite for a utopia, of course, is to be located in a beautiful place.  Rugby certainly meets that criterion.  Looking over the development drawings, while visually looking at the terrain around it, the settlement is laid out perfectly between the picturesque gorges of clear Fork River and White Oak Creek on the gently rolling, foliage laden Cumberland Plateau.


Thomas Hughes

Hughes is passionate about his socialist experiment which is funded partially by himself, but mainly by capitalist financiers in Boston and in London.  The financiers want a monetary return on their new socialistic investment.

Hughes points to the drawings and says, “All the streets will be clean and dry and made in such a manner that even invalids will be able to traverse them in the very worst of winter weather.”

The houses are pictured as solidly built Victorian structures surrounded by neat areas of grass lawns and attractive gardens of both flowers and vegetables; each framed by sturdy wrought-iron fences.

All buildings in Rugby will be constructed in neat rows on carefully developed city blocks, and they will be architecturally compatible, including its library, its church, its stores and its civic buildings.  A perfect community in an idyllic location.

Hughes says his new community is where people can create an agricultural collective and provide free food and free services in the spirit of compassion for all its citizens.  They will have robust literary societies and drama clubs.

All the colonists are educated and excited about this human experiment, clearly departing from what they describe as “capitalistic excesses.”

Hughes and his followers are firmly convinced that all those who approve and accept capitalistic competition and who are constantly struggling against their fellow men in market economies and in society as a whole, as their means of making a living, betray “the will of God.”

They hope to be a part of an intelligent Christian lifestyle, free of the rigid class distinctions currently prevailing in Europe.

In addition to a belief in socialism, another strong motivation for Hughes to establish this Christian socialist colony is to avoid the legal custom in Europe called “primogeniture.” Primogeniture means that only the eldest son inherits everything in the family. Hughes is the second son.  He inherited nothing.

So, America offers these audacious Christian socialists the freedom to pursue their utopian dream unencumbered by the messiness of the capitalistic society as a whole and all its inherent foibles and weaknesses—and, of course, overcoming European primogeniture


A year after its founding, a typhoid epidemic in Rugby killed seven and sent most of these intrepid socialists scrambling for a safer part of the country. Only 60 of the original 200 remained. But, by 1885, Rugby had revived somewhat and had a population of 450 with 70 graceful Victorian structures lain out perfectly on the town site. The colony never grew any larger.

Over the next 10 years, Rugby floundered. The citizens began wanting to run the town their way. The local population resented far away entities—like the ever absent Hughes, and the financiers in Boston and London– telling them exactly how to live their lives and run their town. Investors lost money. When Hughes died in 1896, the dissension really came to a head.  American freedom trumped socialism.  Rugby declined throughout the 20th Century but was never entirely deserted.  However, today, it is partially restored and a beautiful tourist attraction visited by thousands of people a year, complete with inns and restaurants that insures its place in Southern Memories for generations to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *