TODAY (September 28) is World Rabies Day. Although the disease has not been an issue in the UK for 100 years, rabies still kills around 60,000 people a year in 150 countries.

But during the 19th century – when known as hydrophobia – rabies was the most dreaded disease of all in this country.

Many sufferers died a terrible death, usually after being bitten by a so-called "mad dog" and the St Helens district endured a number of shocking cases.

In June 1864 11-year-old Johnnie Wainwright died from hydrophobia after a little dog entered his Knowsley home and scratched his thumb. No one thought anything of the incident until four weeks later when at school Johnnie complained of a severe thirst. But when water was brought the lad ran away in fear.

Doctors from Prescot were called in after the boy began to "rave in delirium", as newspapers put it. But nothing could be done to help Johnnie and just days later the poor child died in agony.

One paper wrote: "The boy raved and made dreadful noises, some resembling the bark of a dog. He had to be fastened down in bed."

It was common for there to be a lengthy incubation period before rabies symptoms were displayed. When 47-years-old Peter Cross was bitten on the leg by a little dog in Sutton around February 1876, it took eight months before he developed pains in his head.

The symptoms worsened over the next few weeks and before he died on November 11th, it was said the very mention of water threw Cross into convulsions.

Two months later a 5-year-old boy called Charles Stubbs from North Road in St Helens was bitten on the leg by a so-called mad dog while playing in Hardshaw Street.

It took six weeks before hydrophobia symptoms set in and within three days the child was dead with chloroform having to be administered to alleviate his suffering.

The dread of getting the disease was so great that some people bitten by a dog could induce rabies symptoms onto themselves.

In June 1877 the fear seemingly drove a 14-year-old Parr girl to commit suicide. Two months earlier a dog displaying signs of hydrophobia had bitten Mary Houghton.

St Helens Star: Prescot ReporterPrescot Reporter (Image: Prescot Reporter)

In reality the likelihood of transmission was very low. But Mary complained of hearing the dog barking and she drowned herself in a pit near Fleet Lane.

During January 1889 there were two suspected cases of rabid dogs in St Helens. A young retriever belonging to Thomas Dennett of Carlton Street needed to be chained up before being shot when symptoms developed. One newspaper wrote: "The dog struggled furiously to break from the chains, foamed at the mouth, and tried to bite anybody who went near it."

A far more serious case occurred in St Helens on January 22nd when a black retriever went on the rampage in Duke Street and Napier Street and bit many children. After a chase through the town, a butcher called Joseph Hatton from Westfield Street killed the poor dog with a meat cleaver.

The authorities decided to send the bitten youngsters to the Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris in case they contracted rabies. Pasteur had recently developed a vaccine against the disease and so a large crowd at St Helens station – which included the Mayor and the town's Chief Constable – waved the party off.

Pasteur's vaccine did not guarantee that rabies would not develop but as far as I know none of the ten injured persons subsequently contracted it.

From time to time people today complain about the UK's strict laws on dog migration.

These cases should serve as a stark reminder as to why they are in place.

Stephen Wainwright's new book 'The Hidden History Of St Helens Volume 3' is available from the St Helens Book Stop and online with free delivery from eBay and Amazon. Price £12. Vols 1 and 2 are also still available