Link between an old Georgian country house and the shocking execution of Strabane


The re-evaluation of the Prehen House is the result of a major survey of historic buildings that NIEA and its predecessor, the Environment and Heritage Service, had undertaken across the province since 1997.

The surveyors had highlighted the survival of the interior elements of the building, such as the door and window frames and the chimneys that would normally have been removed by the Victorians to follow the fashions of the day.


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A search of old newsletters from days gone by has revealed some interesting aspects of the history of Prehen House.

The newsletter reported in May 1915 that the City Clerk of Londonderry writing to the Home Office, at the mayor’s request, had suggested that the residence and property which belonged to the German Army officer , Baron George Carl Otto Louis von Scheffler Knox, by marriage, should be used by the military authorities for the reception of wounded soldiers.

The News Letter reported: “Prehen House has been unoccupied since the start of the war, the owner having left Londonderry on the eve of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, and he is now serving in the German Army.

“If Prehen House is used by the military authorities for wounded recovering soldiers, the mayor is assured that the ladies of Derry will provide all necessary care and other arrangements, and will be happy to help those who suffer so much for the king and the country.”

The newsletter then added further details of the house’s connection to the German officer: “Captain von Scheffler is married to a relative of the late Colonel Knox, DL, who was the former owner of Prehen. Colonel Knox bequeathed the property to Colonel von Scheffler on certain conditions, one of which was that Captain von Scheffler would become a British subject within one year of Colonel Knox’s death. Captain von Scheffler complied with all conditions except this one, but when the case went to the High Court he argued that as a German army officer , it was impossible for him to fulfill the condition in time, and the High Court waived the condition, with the result that he became the absolute owner of the property. The rents for the Prehen estate are collected by a gentleman who is on bail to report to the government. ”


Some 14 years later, in January 1929, the News Letter reported that Prehen Wood had been sold to Messrs. James McGregor and Son, who were timber merchants from Belfast.

The News Letter commented: “A plan to save the Sawyer Estate by converting it into a public park for London has come to naught.”

Prehen House photographed at the beginning of the 20th century.

The property was offered for sale by private agreement covering a total area of ​​200, of which 86 acres were purchased by neighboring tenants.

The lot of MM. McGregor comprised Prehen House and the land between it and Prehen Road.

The News Letter noted: “This, they acquire much of the magnificent old trees that line the road and provide one of the most picturesque views in Londonderry.”

The sale took place under the direction of Mr. WE McClatchy, Secretary of the Land Purchase Commission, reporting to the Northern Ireland Department of Finance.

“Mr. McClatchy is the official custodian of enemy foreign property in Northern Ireland,” the News Letter commented.

And further details were given about von Scheffler’s departure from Prehen House on the eve of the Great War: his regiment in Germany. He and his wife left in a hurry.

But it was also noted: “Because of his ties to Londonderry, Colonel von Scheffler, who was in charge of a prison camp during the war, acted with special consideration towards the Derrymen who had the bad luck of ‘to be taken prisoner. “


The newsletter, in this edition of the journal, also provided a fascinating snippet of the tragic story connected with Prehen House.

The newspaper reported: “It was on the road through Prehen Wood that a century ago a man named MacNaughten shot and killed Miss Knox, the then owner’s daughter. Her father removed her from MacNaughten’s influence, and the shot that killed her was aimed at her father.

Out of curiosity (and weasel on my part), I had to do a new search on the Internet and in old newspapers to see if I could find any further details regarding the tragic Miss Knox and the murderer MacNaghten. And there was something to interest me.

Rather than the murder in the 1820s, as reported in the 1929 News Letter, the murder of Miss Mary Ann Knox took place in November 1761 and MacNaughten was subsequently hanged for her murder in Strabane on December 16, 1761.

But it was during the hanging that he earned a notorious nickname of “Half-Hanged MacNaughten” because the rope they used to hang him snapped on the first attempt and left him. . . “half hanged”.

The Online Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, volume 35, provides an interesting biography of MacNaughten. He has this to say: “Son of a gentleman sitting at Benvarden, near Ballymoney, Co Antrim.” The father died when his son was about six years old, leaving him an estate worth 500 liters. one year. He was educated at the University of Dublin, but does not appear to have graduated. In college, his handsome figure and insinuating skill caught the eye of Sir Clotworthy Skeffington, fourth Viscount Massereene, who introduced him to top company.

“His passion for gambling soon put him in debt, but he recovered his fortune by marrying the sister of Lord Massereene’s second wife, a daughter of Henry Eyre of Rowtor, Derbyshire, whose friends swore him to be he wouldn’t play anymore.

“About two years later, however, he returned to the table with more disastrous results than before.

“An attempt to arrest him for debt alarmed his lying wife so much that she died soon after.

“Reduced to distress, he obtained thanks to the good offices of Massereene the place of collector of the duties of the king at Coleraine, Co Londonderry, with a value of about 200 liters. one year.

“He played over 800 liters. of the king’s money, and as a result lost his capacity as collector, and his property was sequestered.

I did some further research in the News Letter of 1761 to see if the newspaper reported on his execution. And in the December 22, 1761 edition, there was a difficult-to-decipher report from Strabane on December 16, 1761 which confirmed the story that MacNaughten had indeed been “half-hanged.”

The report read: “Strabane, December 16,” This day, in accordance with his sentence, John MacNaughten, Esq, for the murder of Miss Kox, and [John] Dunlap, his unfortunate accomplice, was executed in the middle of the main road from Lifford.

“Mr. MacNaughten brought with surprising resolve and courage to the scene of the execution; and forgave and asked forgiveness from his attorneys.

The News Letter report added that: “Mr. MacNaughten jumped up the ladder so hard he snapped the rope and fell to the ground. He was then lifted up and seated on a cart, until another rope was brought.

On the second attempt, MacNaughten was successfully executed. Their bodies were then handed over to friends and they were “buried in a grave in a corner of the cemetery”.

The News Letter report also detailed that two other alleged MacNaughten accomplices, named Irwin, had been brought to justice the previous Saturday for the same murder and had pleaded not guilty. They argued that they were not prepared for the trial and were therefore returned to Omagh prison, “where they must be until the next assizes”.

Life at Prehen House went on, and every year on the anniversary of Mary Ann’s death, her mother retired to her room to mourn the death of her daughter. She finally recovered from her grief with the marriage of Mary Ann’s brother, George, to Jane Mahon of Strokestown, County Roscommon, and this girl became her second daughter. For 170 years the Knox family lived in Prehen, during which the house and estate were passed down from generation to generation from father to eldest son.

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