First Thalidomide memorial unveiled

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Wetherby MP Alec Shelbrooke was present as a lasting memorial to the thousands of victims of the Thalidomide disaster was unveiled in Harrogate.

Crowds of people, among them survivors of the drug, gathered in the town last Friday as a copper beech tree was planted on Montpellier Hill.

Alec attended in his capacity as Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group and as one of the lead campaigners in securing Wetherby Thalidomide victim Billy Burton’s release from prison in the Philippines last year.

The MP commented: “This Memorial remembers those who have died and who live each day with the consequences of the Thalidomide disaster.

“We remain steadfast in fighting for justice which is yet to be delivered by the company who caused this disaster.”

Thalidomide victim Billy Burton, from Wetherby, said: “It means a lot to me that the memorial is here, in Harrogate.

“It’s fantastic that everybody has recognised it.”

Billy, a former Wetherby High School pupil, had been serving a life sentence in a Manila jail after he was caught trying to smuggle 12lbs of cannabis out of the Philippines in 1992.

After a campaign by the Wetherby News and the Thalidomide Trust for his release, he received an official pardon on Boxing Day 2011 from the country’s president on the grounds of his ill health.

Since his release, Billy has been working with young people and teenagers to raise awareness of drugs.

He has featured in a documentary for BBC’s Inside Out, due to be screened in December, and says he wants to visit his former school- Wetherby High- to talk to young people at the school about the dangers of drugs.

Harrogate Campaigner Guy Tweedy, who has fought for victims’ right and compensation for years, said the tree was a “living tribute” to those who had been affected.

“Thalidomide was the worst man-made disaster in peace time history,” said Mr Tweedy, himself a victim who suffers from shortened arms and fingers fused together.

“For the early years we were known as the forgotten victims. No one wanted to know about our plight or admit their guilt. We have had to endure hardship, constant pain and discrimination.

“This is the first memorial in the UK. I chose Harrogate as there are six Thalidomide victims living in this area, it’s the highest concentration in the UK.

“We are victims of the Thalidomide disaster but we are also survivors. Out of 2,000 born, 469 of us survive today. We are still fighting, 50 years on.”

At the memorial, crowds of people, including victims from as far away as Spain, had gathered for the occasion to mark the 50th anniversary of the Thalidomide drug being withdrawn from the UK market. The so-called wonder drug, prescribed to pregnant women as a cure for morning sickness, had been linked to crippling side effects in newborn babies.

Martin Johnson, director of the Thalidomide Trust, said: “This monument stands for the nearly 500 survivors who are still alive today and who live their lives as best they can, who strive to do the best they can do.

“This monument stands for the hardship and difficulty encountered by all of the families. This was the biggest disaster of its kind in British history and it’s taken us 50 years. Well done Guy Tweedy.”