12 Aug 2022

Derry City Cemetery series: The famous Knox family of Prehen

Knoxes 1

The Knoxes of Prehen have a centuries old association with this city with their family burial vault being one of the most distinctive in Derry City Cemetery.

During the Plantation the Knoxes settled first in Donegal but came into Derry in 1738 when Andrew Knox of Rathmullen married Honoria Thompkins-the heiress of Prehen House.

Their daughter, Mary-Ann Knox still occupies place in Irish folklore to this day. Mary-Ann was associated with John MacNaughton who was born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family and was educated at the Raphoe Royal School.

In 1740 MacNaughton inherited the family estate which was who £500 a year to him and in the same year entered Trinity College, Dublin. He married the sister-in-law of the first Earl of Masserene but became quickly attracted to the extravagances of Dublin in the Asecendancy period, particularly gambling.

Having wasted a large part of his inheritance he accumulated substantial gambling debts and by 1750 was threatened with arrest. When his wife died in childbirth, MacNaughton was appointed to the lucrative position of tax collector for Coleraine but he gambled away £800 of the Treasury's money. His estate was seized and by 1760 he was all but destitute.

John McNaghten turned to Andrew Knox, his childhood friend for help. Know was a wealthy land-owner who lived on an estate at Prehen just outside Derry.

Knox's daughter Mary-Ann even at just 15-years-old was already a wealthy heiress assured of of around £6,000 and stood to inherit even more if her brother died without children.

MacNaughten and Mary-Ann developed a relationship which was said to have been heavily frowned upon by her father. Then, in November 1761 John MacNaughton attempted to kidnap Mary-Ann from a carriage when she and her family were travelling to Dublin in order to elope with her. The episode ended tragically when he shot and fatally wounded her by mistake.

At Lifford Courthouse, MacNaughton was founded guilty of murder and he was sentenced to death by hanging. He threw himself with such force from the gallows that the rope broke. The story goes that the assembled crowd believed this act was a case of divine intervention because he was so upset at the death of Mary-Ann.

However, MacNaughton didn't take advantage of the sympathetic crowd to make his escape and was hung again, this time definitively, on December 16, 1761.

This infamous incident without doubt marred the Knoxes association with Derry in the first few decades of their presence here. But, the early 1800s Letitia Knox became the mother of John and Henry Lawrence who were central figures in the British administration of India. Her grandson Henry was the captain of the first England team to play Ireland in a rugby international.

Other descendants have included Dillwyn Knox who helped break the Enigma Code during WWII and Monsignor Ronald Knox who famously translated the Bible for the Catholic hierarchy in the 1940s. Another famed relative was E.V. (Evoe) Knox who was editor of Punch magazine for nearly 20 years.

The Knox family's connection to Germany began in the 1850's within the marriage of Colonel George Knox of Prehen to Rose Virgine Grimm. Raised in the German traditions, their daughters knew Kaiser Wilhem II personally. The eldest daughter Virgine married Dr Ludwig Otto Von Scheffler, a close friend of the philosopher Friederich Nietzche in 1883.

However, it was the son of George and Rose, also called George who an officer of the Kaiser's court in Berlin, became a baron and eventually the inheritor of Prehen House in 1911. He knew all the crowned heads of Europe including Queen Victoria and Tsar Nicholas II later assassinated by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In Derry, it was Baron Von Scheffler who negotiated the hand over of land at Prehen with the first committee of City of Derry Golf Club in 1912 enabling the course to be constructed.

George Von Scheffler also successfully personally petitioned the Kaiser for permission to add Knox to his name in 1911. With WWI in looming 1914 he was placed under house arrest and with his escape back to Germany, Baron Von Scheffler Knox forfeited the estate at Prehen when it's some 3,640 acres were seized as 'enemy territory.'

He had already however added the name of the estate to that of his only son whose name became Baron Johann Ludwig Von Scheffler Prehen Knox.

When in the late 1930s Nazism began it's sweep through Europe the Von Scheffler Knoxes fled from Germany to Austria. It was however too late, because on their arrival they found that the Nazi regime had already occupied the country and in the resulting chaos several of the Prehen heirlooms were stolen and lost forever including the original hand painted miniature of the murdered Mary-Ann Knox.

Prehen House is as intimately linked with the history of Derry as the Knox family. Records show that it was inhabited as early as 1640. but the current house is a privately owned 18th-century Irish Georgian home thought to have been designed by local architect Michael Priestley. It was built in 1740 for Andrew Knox, M.P. for Donegal, after he, as already said married Prehen heiress Honoria Tomkins two years earlier.

When he died in 2011 in his late 80's the death of Baron Johnann Ludwig Von Scheffler Prehen Knox marked the end of the family's direct lineage to Derry.

The son of Baron George Von Scheffler Knox, his ashes were laid in the Knox family vault in Derry City Cemetery by his German and Irish relatives like this of his father and his mother Germania. In fact, Baron George Knox visited Derry on occasions in the 1950s and his remains were interred in Derry in 1966.

And, until his death in Hamburg in January eight years ago, Johann would send a wreath to Derry every Christmas that would be placed inside the Knox vault which faces directly out from the cemetery across the Foyle to Prehen.

The passing of Baron Johann was also marked by a strange coincidence. Around the time of his death, a medal thought to belong to his grandmother Virgine for tending to wounded German soldiers during WWI suddenly appeared on the antiques market.

Thought to have been amongst the last of the awards made by the old German Imperial order it was bought by a committee of Friends of Prehen House and returned to the city. Virgine was also responsible in 1921 for making a raid the seized Prehen House and recovering many of the treasures before they were sold off by the British.

It was not until 1972 that Prehen House returned to the Knox family ownership when it was bought by relatives Julian and Carolina Peck. Julian's mother was Lady Winifred Peck (nee Knox). The restoration project undertaken by the Pecks was the reason why Baron Johann was able to have his wedding breakfast there after his wedding at Glendermott Church in 1987.

Amongst those attending the committal at Derry City Cemetery of Baron Johann Von Scheffler Knox in 2011 was his stepson Udo Von Scheffler Knox and his wife. But also there was Colin Peck whose parents were responsible for the already mentioned restoration at Prehen House.

A renowned journalist, Colin died at Prehen House in 2015 at the age of 56. Mr Peck, had recently quit journalism to return home to Prehen to look after his elderly mother Carolina who died the previous year aged 93. He had very successfully embarked upon opening Prehen House up as a tourist destination for the region.

His brother Rory, a freelance cameraman died during a gun battle in Moscow back in 1993.

CAPTION: Prehen House on the outskirts of Derry.

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