Big thank you from

An innocent game of `Ducks and Drakes'
that ended in tragedy

The Digger recalls how a childhood game went wrong

Drummaul Parish Church, Randalstown with the family burying ground of Nelson Bell in the foreground.
Drummaul Parish Church, Randalstown with the family burying ground
of Nelson Bell in the foreground.

HOW many of us as children enjoyed skimming stones across the local lakes and ponds? Many children still do. The secret was always to use the flattest stone available. One of the local papers in the early 1920's reminds readers of a popular phrase of that era, normally applied to a spendthrift - "A man is making 'ducks and drakes' of his money."

The paper proceeds to inform us that 'ducks and drakes was the name of a game often played by schoolboys. The stones that ricochet were called 'drakes' whilst the others were 'ducks'. Other references to the game state it was sometimes called 'dick, duck and drake'. If the item thrown rebounded once it was referred to as a 'dick', twice a 'duck' and three times 'a drake.

In February 1860 Nelson Allen Bell from Coolsythe, a son of James Bell, married Elizabeth Marshall at Drummaul Parish Church in Randalstown.

After the death of his wife Nelson Bell, aged 30, got married a second time in December 1866 - to Nancy Galloway, daughter of a local weaver, at Ballymena Registry Office.

On May 11 1870 Nancy gave birth to a son, Nelson Allen Bell. Nelson Bell junior left home on November 12 1886, at the age of 16 to reside with Mr. John Bell at Ballymacbrennan, County Down. It is unclear what connection Nelson had with Ballymacbrennan. He may well have been hired by that family for employment on a the farm.

On June 9, 1887, 17 year old Nelson had been in the company of four others at Ballymacbrennan engaging in a game of 'duck and drake. Three of those in Nelson Bell's company were Hugh Acheson, James Stevenson and Thomas McCartney. But the innocent game ended in tragedy for Nelson Bell.

At an inquest held at Seymour Street, Lisburn in the County Antrim Infirmary, into the death of Nelson Bell, Hugh Acheson told those present that four of the 'ducks' were lying at the 'table. He said James Stevenson was about to cast off his 'duck' and had called for all present to "stand off."

But as James Stevenson was throwing the stone Nelson Bell ran forward and lifted his 'duck' and was running away in the direction of the "butt", when he was struck on the right temple. Thomas McCartney confirmed to the inquest that he had also heard James Stevenson call out a warning for all present to keep clear.

Those at the game had given water to Nelson Bell and walked with him to the County Antrim Infirmary.

The Coroner for South Antrim, Dr. Arthur Mussen, confirmed none of those present had consumed any alcohol, and that James Stevenson and Nelson Bell had been on good terms.

Dr. John S. Ward told the inquest he saw Nelson Bell 30 minutes after he was admitted to the infirmary. Dr. Ward stated the patient was suffering from a "lacerated wound on the scalp, such as would he caused by a blow of a stone."

Dr. St. George dressed the wound and the patient was taken to bed. Nelson Bell's condition progressed favourably to June 16 1887. After that date his condition deteriorated. His father told the inquest he visited his son on June 21 and he was unconscious at that time. His father would have the terrible task of identifying his son's body when he passed away at 5am on Saturday July 9 1887.

Dr. Ward told the inquest that as a result of a post mortem examination it was his opinion that the "deceased died from an abscess of the brain, the result of the wound received by the stone." He told the foreman of the jury, Mr. Andrew Gillespie, that the deceased told him he got the wound while "playing duck-stone" and it was quite accidental.

Dr. Ward asked Mr. Gillespie if he knew of the game to which he replied "Oh, I do. It is a very dangerous game."

The foreman and jury were in agreement that that the death of Nelson Allen Bell was accidental. Dr. Mussen, the coroner recorded that verdict on July 11 1887 in the Lisburn death register.

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