Ever since Eden was lost, people have tried to discover or create the next utopia.
In 1880, famed British author and social reformer Thomas Hughes started an experimental utopian colony in Rugby, Tennessee. Hughes rebelled against the materialism of the Victorian era and England’s primogeniture law. Primogeniture is the right of the first born to inherit the entire estate of the parents. Consistent with the era, first born really meant first born son. Later sons and all daughters got nothing. Hughes himself was a second son.
England’s rigid social structure also restricted employment for younger sons of the middle-to-upper classes. Law, medicine, priesthood, and the military were acceptable occupations for this group. But working in farming, industry or the trades was seen as demeaning. Because of primogeniture, later sons often had only their family name to support themselves. If they could not secure white collar work, they were expected to starve like gentlemen, rather than dirty their hands.
Hughes envisioned Rugby as a place where England’s “second sons” could own land and escape England’s social ills, without forfeiting British cultural amenities. It would be a farming community built on the Christian socialist ideals of equality and cooperation. Each resident was required to invest $5 in the commissary to establish communal ownership.
Due to Hughes’ celebrity status and bold vision, the New York Times, Harper’s Weekly and prominent London publications closely followed Rugby’s progress. The first few years exceeded expectations. The colony boasted over 400 residents and 65 buildings, as well as a tennis team, social club, newspaper, library and drama group.
But by 1887, most of the original settlers were gone. What went wrong? In hindsight, this utopian society suffered near-fatal blows from several directions:
Poor soil. Rugby’s location was chosen for its natural beauty, mild climate and proximity to a new railroad track running to Chattanooga. The agricultural premise for this new Shangri-la was defeated by the inhospitable soil.
Disease. Typhoid killed several prominent citizens, decimating the community spirit.
Land title disputes. Although Rugby’s founders held options on 35,000 acres, some Appalachian natives later refused to sell. In addition, the colony’s real estate documents were often vaguely written, inaccurate, or missing, resulting in 50+ lawsuits over ownership.
Unrealistic expectations. Rugby promised to be a place where manual labor would be deemed noble “and where even the humblest would be cultured enough to meet princes,” to quote Hughes. Unfortunately, too many residents pursued tennis, poetry, and afternoon tea while the plows rusted in the fields.
Nevertheless, a small group persevered and Rugby is one of very few 19th century utopian communities continuously occupied to date. Restoration began in the 1960’s and the village is now recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Today, the historic section of Rugby has about 100 residents, with the larger Rugby community numbering 1,000. Rugby will host its 37th Annual Festival of British & Appalachian Culture in 2011.
Shortly before founder Thomas Hughes died, he wrote to an old friend saying, “I can’t help feeling and believing that good seed was sown when Rugby was founded, and that someday the reapers, whoever they may be, will come along with joy, bearing heavy sheaves with them.”