‘Wuthering Heights’ fans will feel at home in Prehen House, one of the North West’s most historic buildings, with stories both steeped in romantic tragedy set in windswept hilltop locations.
Strong parallels have been drawn between the legend of Prehen House and Emily Bronte’s classic English novel having similar core themes, the destructive effect of jealousy and vengefulness.
Prehen House is inextricably linked with the notorious ‘Half Hanged’ McNaughton who was publicly executed in Lifford for the shocking killing of the teenage daughter of its owner Andrew Knox, the MP for Donegal, in 1761.
The murderous tale makes Prehen House a prime attraction for visitors to Londonderry and its rural hinterland, the Faughan Valley, especially as it is also reportedly haunted by the ghost of McNaughton who is buried in a disused cemetery 14 miles away in Strabane.
Prehen House is one of 52 visitor attractions supported by Derry and Strabane District Council’s Rural Tourism Programme which is funded by Invest NI and the European Regional Development Fund.
Situated next to the famous woods, Prehen House commands dramatic views of Londonderry, the river Foyle and the hills beyond, and is intimately linked with the history of the city.
Colin Peck, who inherited Prehen House several years ago, provides characterful tours of the pre-Plantation property awash with anecdotes about many of the colourful former residents and their guests.
Peck, a former international war correspondent, is assisted by friend and neighbour Declan McLaughlin, in promoting the Grade A listed house which is also available for private functions.
Prehen House featured in a recent edition of “World of Interiors” magazine, illustrating the grandeur of the entrance hallway and rooms across two floors which are open to the public. The imposing stone manor is also due to feature in a Channel 4 show in September focusing on country homes.
Visitors to the Georgian-style property can view the ground floor music room where the body of 15 year-old Mary Ann Knox was laid out after she was shot dead by the penniless John McNaughton, who was twice her age when he set his sights on her. A wheel from the stricken carriage she was travelling in when she met her tragic fate, is also on display in the room.
Andrew Knox reportedly had Prehen House built as a favour for getting local architect Michael Priestly, the commission to design Lifford Courthouse. McNaughton’s trial for killing Mary Ann, was held in the Co. Donegal courthouse where he was sent to the gallows with his servant and accomplice, John Dunlap.
Knox had invited his childhood friend McNaughton to Prehen House after he had gambled away his own inheritance and his wife had died in childbirth. However, after McNaughton tricked 15-year-old Mary Ann into believing they would marry - in a failed attempt to gain access to her dowry and family’s wealth - Knox banished him from his home and he disappeared to England.
According to Peck, popular folklore that McNaughton ambushed the coach on horseback at Cloughcor to elope with Mary Ann, is “complete nonsense” as he had boasted in London that he intended to return and take his bloody revenge.
Given that Knox was a local MP, the tragedy was a “massive scandal”, said Peck. “McNaughton was very, very sly and he persuaded Mary Ann they were in love with each other and were going to get married, knowing that her father was never going to allow it.
“McNaughton told Mary Ann that he had got permission from her father to get married but that they had to keep it a secret and not tell anybody until she was 16 and he had got his fortune back. She believed him because he was a completely manipulative and absolutely heartless person, and she was just a child. It was not unusual for people in their mid to late teens to get engaged in those days.”
McNaughton fired through a side window of the carriage which had been opened either by Mary Ann or her nanny, fatally wounding the young girl in the process.
Sentenced to death by hanging, his life could have been spared as the hangman’s noose broke twice and the law at the time stipulated you could not be hanged three times. However, he insisted as he didn’t want to be known as ‘Half Hanged McNaughton’, although inevitably the moniker stuck.
Peck believes that ‘Wuthering Heights’ may well have been inspired by the tragic inhabitants of Prehen House. Emily Bronte’s father, a teacher and clergyman from Co Down, would undoubtedly have related the story of John McNaughton and Mary Ann Knox to his writer daughters, according to its current owner.
One of the wheels and wooden panels from the ill-fated coach, are among the many fascinating artefacts and family heirlooms on view in Prehen House. They were secretly removed and housed in Hamburg after the estate was confiscated by the British Government as enemy property on the outbreak of World War I while in the ownership of a German branch of the Knox family associated with Kaiser Bill.
It was turned into flats between the 1930s and 1950s and lay derelict until the 1960s after which Peck’s parents Julian and Corola Peck bought it and restored it to its former glory. He recalls arriving to find the front door hanging off and his delight at discovering the original door in the attic ten years ago and having it re-fitted.
Peck returned permanently to Prehen House around a decade ago to look after his elderly mother who passed away last year aged 93. Tragically, he also lost his brother Rory Peck, who worked with him as a cameraman for German television company, ARD, and was killed in crossfire while reporting from Moscow in October 1993, aged 36.
Colin Peck has many mementoes of his own career spent in war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq and Russia. Among his souvenirs are a nutmeg grinder from Saddam Hussein’s palace and a copy of ‘Faust’s Metropolis: A History of Berlin’ by Alexandra Richie, signed by Markus Wolf, former head of the East German Secret Intelligence Service.
A charming host, Peck has an abundance of fascinating anecdotes about the portraits which adorn the walls of Prehen House, including a large painting of his mother by the artist Ralph Peacock.
Peck tells the story of his mother’s uncle Harold Titcomb who travelled from his home in Brooklyn, New York as a young man to visit London and was in the Tate gallery when Peacock’s portrait of two sisters caught his eye and he remarked that he would marry “the one on the right”.
Titcomb made contact with the artist and was invited to his studio where he met the sister he would indeed marry, named Ethel. The other sister, Edith, was already married to the artist.
“It’s a good job he chose the right sister”, says Peck, who will never run out of stories about his very unique family home which even houses a Russian Orthodox chapel in the basement.
Summing up the widespread romantic fascination with Prehen he adds: “Anyone with a romantic enchantment with the past, with tragedies, with hauntings and romance will find everything they want here. And, I hope they leave the place with a feeling of having dipped far into the reaches of the past.”
For further information about Prehen House visit www.prehenhouse.com