In mid-December 1761 outside Lifford Gaol, County Donegal John MacNaghten was hanged not once but twice. A month earlier he had killed a young woman to whom he claimed to be married. More than twenty years earlier MacNaghten had inherited an estate at Benvarden, County Antrim with an annual income of some £600, but his addiction to gambling meant he was obliged to sell or mortgage the greater part of the property. Circumstances improved following marriage to Sophie Daniel, daughter of the Dean of Down who brought with her an impressive dowry. Unfortunately MacNaghten soon resumed his old ways and by 1756 had accumulated such significant debts that a warrant was issued for his arrest. Around this time his wife died in childbirth, leaving him penniless once more. In a further attempt to improve his fortune he managed to be appointed to the lucrative post of tax collector for Coleraine but then gambled away £800 of the state’s money: his estate was now sequestered and by 1760 he was without recourse to funds. An old family friend, Andrew Knox who lived at Prehen, County Derry took pity of MacNaghten and offered him support. Knox had a fifteen-year old daughter Mary Anne who was already in line to inherit £6,000 and possibly much more should her elder brother not have any children. MacNaghten and Mary Anne Knox developed some kind of romantic relationship and even seem to have gone through a form of marriage ceremony before her father discovered what was taking place and forbade further contact between the two. He was in the process of travelling with his daughter to Dublin in November 1761 when their carriage was intercepted by MacNaghten, intent on carrying off the young girl. In an exchange of gunfire, Mary Anne was accidentally and fatally wounded. It did not take long before MacNaghten was arrested, tried at Lifford Courthouse and sentenced to death for her murder. When the day came for him to be hanged, the rope broke and so he had to be strung up a second time. Forever after he has been remembered as Half-Hanged MacNaghten.
Originally from Scotland, the Knox family settled in Ireland during the 17th century, the first of them to come here being an Anglican clergyman Andrew Knox who in 1610 was appointed Bishop of Raphoe, County Donegal. In 1738 his great-grandson, the aforementioned Andrew Knox, father of the unfortunate Mary Anne and long-time MP for Donegal in the Irish Parliament, married Honoria Tomkins, heiress to the Prehen estate. The following decade the couple built themselves a new residence here overlooking the river Foyle and some two miles upstream from the city of Derry. The house’s design is attributed to Michael Priestley, about whom relatively little is known except that he was responsible for a number of buildings in north-west Ulster. Incidentally, among his other commissions was Lifford Courthouse and Gaol, outside which John MacNaghten was twice-hanged: a curious architectural link with Prehen, although probably of little interest to the condemned man. Built of rubble with ashlar dressings, the house has two storeys over basement and is of four bays, the centre two being slightly advanced and featuring a handsome sandstone Gibbsian doorcase and at the top a pediment with the Knox coat of arms. The interior is equally fine for the period, beginning with a substantial flagged entrance hall off which open a series of reception rooms to left and right while symmetrical doors to the rear give access to a main and service stairs respectively. A similar arrangement pertains on the first floor where the central space to the front of the building is taken up by a substantial gallery with coved ceiling.
The Knoxes remained at Prehen until the outbreak of the First World War when, for reasons that need to be explained, the estate was seized by the British government. Back in the mid-19th century Colonel George Knox married a Swiss girl, Rose Virgine Grimm and in turn one of their daughters Virginia was married to the German scholar and former student of Nietzsche Dr Ludwig von Scheffler of Weimar. Their son, Georg Carl Otto Ludwig von Scheffler became Adjutant to the Commander of the Cadet Corps Governor of the Royal Pages in the Prussian Army and was raised to the rank of baron by the Kaiser. On the death of his maternal grandfather George Knox in 1910, he inherited Prehen and assumed the additional surname of Knox. The Baron stayed at Prehen until August 1914 when war was declared between Britain and Germany. Initially placed under house arrest, he escaped and returned to Germany. In his absence, however, Prehen and its lands were confiscated by the government as enemy property. Following the conclusion of hostilities, the estate was liquidated at public auction under the terms of the 1916 Trading with the Enemy Amendment Act: Baron von Scheffler Knox only returned to see Prehen in the 1950s accompanied by his son, Johann Von Scheffler Prehen Knox who only died five years ago.
By the early 1970s Prehen was in poor condition. Requisitioned during the Second World War for troop accommodation, the house had been internally subdivided, a secondary door inserted into one of the main entrance’s sidelights, and there were large holes in the roof. On the verge of complete dereliction the property was then bought by Julian Peck and his American-born wife Carola: the couple had previously restored Rathbeale, County Dublin. Julian Peck had a family link with the place, his mother being author Winifred Peck (née Knox), one of a remarkable band of siblings whose other members included Monsignor Ronald Knox, Roman Catholic priest and detective story writer, Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, who worked as a code breaker during both the First and Second World Wars (he was employed at Bletchley Park until his death in 1943), the Church of England clergyman Wilfred Knox, and the poet and editor of Punch Edmund Knox (whose daughter was the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald). The Pecks rescued Prehen, bringing the house back to life and filling it with animation. Several of the rooms have had their walls painted, those in the entrance hall being covered with frescoes by Alec Cobbe. Meanwhile the dining room was decorated by Carola Peck in a style that blends Pompeii with Puvis de Chavannes. Julian Peck lived in the house until his death in 2001, followed by his wife in 2014. Their surviving son Colin sadly died last August, thereby ending a long connection between the Knoxes and Prehen. However the house survives as a testament to this remarkable family, and to the curious history of Half-Hanged MacNaghten.