Story of half hanged McNaughton was the inspiration for Wuthering Heights

Was Wuthering Heights inspired by the tragic events at Prehen House?
Was Wuthering Heights inspired by the tragic events at Prehen House?

It’s perhaps best known for the story of tragic Half Hanged John McNaughton.

But a little known fact about the historic Prehen House in Derry is that it’s believed to have been the inspiration behind Emily Bronte’s epic novel Wuthering Heights.

Declan McLaughlin and Colin Peck outside the city's Prehen House. Pictures by Ivor Doherty.

Declan McLaughlin and Colin Peck outside the city's Prehen House. Pictures by Ivor Doherty.

The Wuthering Heights link and John McNaughton are just two of the subjects covered in a series of historic tours which will take place at Prehen House this weekend.

But there’s more to this house on the hill than you might first imagine. And it’s set to become a little better known around the world after being featured in this month’s ‘World of Interiors’ magazine

Sure where else would you find an 800 year-old icon that once belonged to Chester Beatty, the wardrobe once used by Josephine Bonaparte and Saddam Hussein’s nutmeg grinder?

Tours are given by both Colin Peck whose family now live in the house and members of Friends of Prehen House.

There’s no central heating so make sure you wrap up well. Unfortunately because of heritage regulations the only warmth comes from fires and a giant wood burner in the hallway. But if you like the smell of an open fire you soon forget about the chill of the house and focus on the chilling stories about some of the strange characters that once graced the hallways of this captivating house.

“The house has always been open to the public,” says Colin Peck. “Tours were done by appointment but often people came up here and if I was in you could have a look around.

“However Declan McLaughlin has come on board and the idea is to have a more professional approach to the tours with fixed hours for tours.”

Declan explains that Friends of Prehen House are keen to encourage more visitors from both inside and outside the town.

“Prehen House has so much to offer,” he said.

“So many people tell us that they didn’t even know it existed or that they had heard about it but didn’t know they could come up and have a look around.

“And when people come here the consensus is that they really enjoy it, It can be cold at times but it does get warmer and people tend to enjoy the experience.”

Declan and Colin are busy taking down the decorations after what they say was a very successful Christmas with hundreds of children visiting Santa’s grotto.

“Santa was so popular that we had to close the books two weeks before Christmas,” said Declan. “Hundreds of people visited and while they were here got a tour of the house.”

The hope now is to keep up the momentum of Christmas and get more visits to the house.

And the story of John McNaughton remains the house’s biggest selling point, despite the various versions of his story which have been told down the years.

John McNaughton was a friend of the Knox family. In 1761 Mary Ann Knox who was just 15 became besotted with McNaughton and the two began a relationship. McNaughton convinced Mary Ann to marry him in secret. But her father Andrew Knox found out their plan and forbid it — he believed McNaughton only wanted her considerable dowry, to continue his gambling. When Mary Ann was travelling to Dublin with her father on November 10, McNaughton held up the carriage to try and elope with the girl. The shoot-out went wrong and McNaughton accidentally killed Mary Ann. McNaughton was sentenced to hang for his crime but on the gallow the rope broke. Local legend says he was offered the opportunity to escape but declined, as he did not want to be remembered as a half-hanged man.

Ironically McNaughton became infamous as ‘half hanged’ and his ghostly presence has been said to have been seen in Prehen.

Downstairs you can see the actual wheels from the coach in which Mary Anne Knox was shot.

“People know the story better than the house,” said Colin. “During the tours visitors will get to see practically all of the house and hear the entire history. We were very lucky that the year before last Queen’s University Belfast visited and dug up the old borne in the grounds. Amazingly they found an old fort out there and a tower.”

Colin explains how there’s a strong suspicion that Emily Bronte could have based her novel Wuthering Heights on the tragic love story of John McNaughton and Mary Anne Knox.

“Look back at that situation in the 1760s,” he said. “This was a love story, a great romance. He was brought into the family. Then she leaves him and he comes back and wreaks havoc and revenge. There was quite an outrage at the time. There were contemporary articles written about it all over England and news would have travelled very fast.

“Patrick Bronte grew up in County Down, he would have known all about it. He was a clergy man and a teacher and educated his daughters himself. It would be strange if he didn’t tell them this story. There are so many similarities between elements of the Wuthering Heights and what happened here,

“One imagines Emily Bronte must have heard the story.”

The tour reveals many stories including how an icon belonging to Chester Beatty ended up hanging on the walls of Prehen House. Colin may even show you the nutmeg grinder which once belonged to Saddam Hussein and the wardrobe belonging to Napoleon’s Josephine.

But the haunted room remains the most fascinating part of the tour.

Colin reveals how a figure once got into bed with him while he was sleeping in the room.

“I don’t believe in ghosts but that really happened,” he insisted. “Even with different beds it still happens. It even happened to a friend of mine sleeping on a mattress on the floor.”

Tours will be taking place this Saturday and Sunday. To book a place contact Declan on 07933836866 or send him a message through facebook on ‘Prehen House.’

Additional tours will take place in February.