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Rugby Overview | Detailed History | Images & Documents


Robert Walton, an Irishman who graduated from the University of Cork, was one of the first settlers to make Rugby, Tennessee, his home. When he first moved to the United States, Walton was named assistant City Engineer for Cincinnati, Ohio. In that capacity, he was hired to design the town of Rugby for its future settlers, choosing eventually to leave his post in Cincinnati and to stay in Rugby permanently. He designed the family home there and later served as surveyor and manager of the Rugby colony. After his death in 1907, his son William T. Walton held the role of manager until the land was sold to other American buyers.

Rugby settlement efforts had begun in 1878 when a group of Boston businessmen attracted the attention of English reformer Thomas Hughes and recruited him to become president of the "Board of Aid to Land Ownership." The colony, officially dedicated on October 5, 1880, was originally called Plateau City; however, Hughes found this title to be "neither good English nor good Yankee” and instead selected “some name round which cluster tender memories of the old Mother Land” (Sarah L. Walton, Memories of Rugby Colony, 5.). In fact, the name probably reminded Hughes of his alma mater, the Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. Hughes, known as a statesman, philanthropist, and Christian socialist, had received popular attention upon the publication of his novels Tom Brown’s School Days and Tom Brown at Oxford. These books portrayed the life of Will Wimble, who was unable to pursue the kind of life he wished in England because of his situation as the second son of an aristocratic family. It was precisely this type of scenario – an old social custom that hindered many talented British men in real life from pursuing certain types of professions – that would motivate Hughes to establish Rugby. In 1880 Hughes wrote, “For every post by which a gentleman can live, there are one hundred candidates. . . . The pressure of this state of things has been driving our boys to America. . . . In England caste prejudice against manual labour is too strong. . . . Our Will Wimbles . . . must begin then across the seas” (Hamer, Marguerite Bartlett, “Thomas Hughes and His American Rugby,” The North Carolina Historical Review 5, no. 4 [October 1928] 392). Although Hughes never actually resided in Rugby himself, he was responsible for much of the planning and development.

Hughes eventually served as the President of the Board of Aid, originally incorporated in 1862 by Boston capitalists. He first became involved (and ultimately merged) with the Board of Aid in 1878, sharing with these businessmen a desire to facilitate colonization in remote, unoccupied areas. The Boston Board of Aid led several excursions through the Central and Southwestern states before locating suitable land in east Tennessee. In 1879 a contract was drawn up between the Board and a New York firm for the purchase of the firm’s lands in east Tennessee. The Board gained a controlling interest in around 35,000 acres, and purchased each acre for twenty cents to two dollars, although more than this was paid for some lands. Board members planned to sell the land to settlers for fifty cents to twenty-five dollars an acre, the higher price being for town commercial and villa lots.

By 1881 English interests had taken over the Board of Aid entirely; by that point more than three hundred colonists lived in Rugby. For a period of time, the settlers enjoyed a bustling cultural life reminiscent of British culture as they created their own community in the pristine environment of east Tennessee. The colonists published the Rugbeian, a newspaper edited by local Oxford graduates that circulated both inside the Rugby community and in England and Australia. The community opened a library after receiving donations of 7,000 bound volumes — some now of considerable value and age — in honor of Hughes. The three-story Tabard Inn, named after the hostelry in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, was built to lodge potential colonists and visitors and to entertain residents and their guests—some of the balusters from the original 1383 inn were brought to Tennessee to decorate the new building. Even a quaint Episcopal church, built in the Gothic style, was constructed and adorned with organ and altar hangings brought by the first group of settlers.

Settlers enjoyed newly created tennis courts and bridle paths, but unfortunately The community chose to build many of these amenities while neglecting more practical matters, such as the construction of roads, houses, and other buildings. Many of these luxury items were constructed while land disputes were being settled, so that at least some development—albeit impractical — could continue during the land negotiations. Adding to the settlers’ woes was an 1881 typhoid epidemic that took seven lives in the small community. Many of the settlers' hopes for Rugby were never realized. Rugbians had envisioned a canning factory and had even designed elaborate labels for their products, but a drought left them with barely enough tomatoes to meet their own needs. Educating the young was another problem; the Arnold School, modeled after its English namesake, failed to live up to expectations. The failures of many other institutions at Rugby could be attributed to poor planning and lack of expertise. Rugby began its slow decline about seven years after it was founded, but it never disappeared altogether.

Rugby’s greatest woes probably stemmed from poor management by the Board of Aid. Ultimately, confusion over rightful ownership of the land and the Board’s sluggish management style (Thomas Hughes was often away when crises required his response, and decisions had to be made by the London office) led to the demise of the board and its mission. More than 52 lawsuits were brought against the Board, for their land surveys, deeds, and other records were often vaguely written or inaccurate as well as disorganized. The Board was reorganized a number of times, often under new names, with new American capital to add to the British holdings. Hughes died in 1896 after losing tens of thousands of dollars in his dream of an American utopia, and the Board itself was purchased by American stockholders early in the twentieth century. By this time, the Board still owned 25,000 acres of land, but most of the settlers had left the community.

A number of individuals, including William T. Walton and his wife, remained behind to attend to the church and library and to manage the publicly owned buildings. In the 1920s control over the Rugby Tennessee Land Company was turned over to Leland G. Banning, a Cincinnati capitalist. The Waltons continued to reside in Rugby until their deaths in the late 1950s.