The interment of the ashes of Baron Johann Von Scheffler Prehen Knox of Hamburg in the city cemetery yesterday marks the end of one of Derry’s great dynasties – the Knoxes of Prehen. The Von Scheffler Knoxes represented the German side of the family and had a great love of Ireland and Derry in particular – thus the desire to be laid to rest locally.
Johann, the last direct descendent of the Knox line of Prehen died in Hamburg in January 2011 in his late eighties. He was the great grandson of Colonel George Knox of Prehen, who died in 1910. This death ended the Derry side of the family. Johann’s father Baron George Von Scheffler Knox inherited Prehen from the Colonel and lived in Derry from 1911 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 when he returned to Germany, which he considered to be his fatherland. As a result the Prehen estate was deemed to be enemy property and sold off by the British government.
The Knoxes have had a long association with Derry. The early family first settled in Donegal at the time of the Plantation and came into the city in 1738 with the marriage of Andrew Knox of Rathmullen and Honoria Thomkins, the Prehen heiress. Their daughter Mary Ann Knox was murdered in 1761 by her lover John McNaghten - an incident that looms large in Irish folklore. In the early 1800s Letitia Knox became the mother of the Lawrence brothers John and Henry of India - her grandson Henry captained England in the first-ever international rugby match against Ireland. Other descendents of the Knoxes were great writers and scholars, among them Dillwyn Knox, who helped break the Enigma Code, Evoe Knox, the editor of Punch, and the brilliant Mgr. Ronald Knox, translator of the Bible and close friend of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, GK Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh.
The German side of the family had commenced in the 1850s with the marriage of Colonel George Knox of Prehen to Rose Virgine Grimm. Their daughters were virtually brought up as young Germans and knew Kaiser Wilhelm II (Kaiser Bill). Virgine Knox, the eldest daughter, married Dr. Ludwig Otto Von Scheffler, a close friend of the famous philosopher Nietzsche, in 1883. It was their son George, an officer in the Kaiser’s court in Berlin, who became a baron and eventually lord of the manor at Prehen in 1911. He knew all the crown heads of Europe, including Queen Victoria and the Russian Emperor Tsar Nicholas II, later assassinated by the Bolsheviks.
Incidentally it was this first baron who was involved in negotiations with the original committee of City of Derry Golf Club (1912), so enabling then to acquire the land for the golf course at Prehen.
George Von Scheffler obtained personal permission from the Kaiser to add Knox to his name, so becoming Baron Von Scheffler Knox in 1911. When he forfeited Prehen by moving back to Germany in 1914, he gave the name Prehen to Johann, his only son, whose full title eventually became – Baron Johann Ludwig Von Scheffler Prehen Knox. Johann’s interment at the cemetery yesterday finally marks the end of the Knox era here.
An interesting aside is that the Von Scheffler Knoxes fled Germany for Austria in 1938 to avoid the Nazi regime only to find the German Third Reich occupying their newly-adopted country in what has come to be known as the Anschluss. In the resulting disorder it is believed that several Prehen heirlooms were stolen and lost to the family forever, including the original painted miniature of the murdered Mary Ann Knox.
The late Baron Johann’s ashes have been placed alongside those of his parents George and Germania in the Knox vault. Baron Geroge Knox was able to visit Derry back in the 1950s and upon his death in 1966 was interred here. Up until recently his son Johann would send a wreath each Christmas from Germany in memory of his ancestors. This would be placed inside the Knox vault, which faces directly out from the cemetery across the River Foyle to Prehen.
As for Prehen House, the Knoxes ancestral home, it was only in 1972 that the dwelling was brought back into family ownership – purchased by Julian and Carola Peck, relatives of the Knoxes. Julian Peck’s mother was the writer Lady Winifred Peck (nee Knox). The consequent beautiful restoration of Prehen House by the Pecks proved opportune for Johann, who wanted his religious wedding to take place in the Derry home of his ancestors. So it was with considerable pride that after his marriage at Glendermott Church in 1987 he was able to have his wedding breakfast at Prehen.
The death of Baron Johann in January past was marked by a strange coincidence – a mystery concerning his grandmother Virgine. Earlier this year, a medal, thought to have been awarded in 1918 to Virgine Von Scheffler Knox for her work with injured German soldiers in World War I suddenly appeared on the curios market. Probably among the last of the awards by the old imperial German court the medal is quite unique and the good news is that it has found its way to Prehen thanks to the generosity of a committee member of Friends of Prehen. Virgine is always remembered with pride for it was she who single – handedly, in a daring journey from Germany, recovered some of the Prehen treasures before they could be auctioned off in 1921.
Those attending the committal of Baron Johann Von Scheffler Knox yesterday were Udo Macholdt and his wife – Udo is the stepson of Baron Johann; Colin Peck, whose parents Carola and Julian restored Prehen to its Georgian splendour; and members of the Friends of Prehen Committee and other family friends.
Johann will be sadly missed by his wife Elsa, who recalls the pride with which he spoke of Prehen and Derry. His knowledge of his Knox forbears was remarkable. He was a loving husband - always pleasant, and understanding, and with warm sense of character that made him a wonderful person to be with.