Fashioning Rugby: They came a’ Visiting

by Susan Jarrett

In this multi-part series, originally entitled- Fashioning Rugby: An English Lady’s Guide to Proper Dress in East Tennessee from 1870-1890, we will use primary source documents as well as period photographs and museum artifacts to build wardrobes for the key female residents of Rugby, Tennessee.


Rugby, Tennessee was the utopian vision of Thomas Hughes- a landed gentleman from Oxfordshire, England and influential lawyer, judge, politician and author. He is most famous for his novel Tom Brown’s School Days (c. 1857). Disaffected by the current economic, political, and religious state of Victorian Era England, Hughes envisioned a new society- one in which equality (for men) and the rejection of capitalism could create a more just, pure, and thus blissful existence.

Specifically, Rugby was a rejection of the British custom of primogeniture- or the right of the firstborn legitimate child to inherit the parent’s entire or main estate in lieu of shared inheritance among all or some children.

History tells us that Hughes Utopian settlement within the wild untamed wilderness of Northern Tennessee would ultimately fail. But for the 7 years in which it endeavored, The Rugby Settlement was successful in capturing the imagination of all who sought out and continue to forge a trail into the wilderness.

Sophia and Mrs. Richard Tyson

Mrs. Richard Tyson brought her eligible young daughter Sophia and son Jesse to Rugby from Baltimore in hopes of finding her children prospective spouses with aristocratic lineage. Not quite wealthy enough to offer her children up for royal titles (via the transatlantic marriage trade) but still hoping to trade dowries for royal lineage, Mrs. Richard Tyson spent some time in Ruby during 1886 hosting parties and dances at Rugby.

Like the Tysons, many newly monied American families came to Rugby in hopes of furthering their social ambitions. Marrying an impoverished (or even disinherited) son or daughter of English aristocracy held entirely more social value in middle class Victorian Era America than a marriage to another wealthy tradesman of obscure descent. And herein lies the lure of The Rugby Settlement- a utopia designed for England’s “second sons and daughters.”

Second Tabard Inn, c. 1887-1899

Dressing Mrs. Richard Tyson, Sophia, and Others

A variety of individuals from both America and Europe visited Rugby from 1881-1900. Formal advertisements boasted of Rugby’s rugged beauty and refined amenities. Some early visitors found Rugby too rustic for their tastes while later visitors reveled in the freedom the wide open spaces brought. Included below are excerpts from flyers c. 1881-1887 about the Rugby settlement:

While pleased with their amenities and time at Rugby (for they visited on multiple occasions), we never learn if Sophia or Jesse found marriage partners. We also never learn Mrs. Richard Tyson’s first name. We do know from Emily Hughes letters to her friend in England (Dissipations at Uffington House c. 1881-1887), many matches were made during the early years of Rugby with most returning back to England.

I like to speculate what the wealthy New England ladies’ thoughts were upon arrival in the little British village carved from the Tennessee wilderness. I imagine, like Emily Hughes, many arrived completely unprepared for the rugged terrain, range of temperatures, and isolation of Northeastern Tennessee. I envision these ladies in lavish silk gowns and tiny pointed leather shoes stepping out for the first time onto the streets of Rugby sinking ankle deep into the earthen ground.

I also imagine intimate parties by candlelight and gentle mountain breezes chasing away the day’s heat. I imagine swimming in mountain streams and riding horses in lands untouched by industrialization. I imagine a tiny colony tucked away in the wilds of Tennessee where dreams and reality were a complete juxtaposition.

Back: Dressing Margaret Hughes

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CalicoBall is a grassroots effort to document, preserve, and present rural America’s diverse historical traditions. CalicoBall is an educational extension of Maggie May Clothing. All rights reserved.