Rose Heilbron

Published 7th July 2014
The late Dame Rose Heilbron’s remarkable catalogue of firsts reads like a record book: her career was truly unprecedented.  She was the first woman to receive a first class Law degree from Liverpool University, the first woman to win a scholarship to Gray’s Inn, one of the first two women to be appointed KC (the other, Helen Normanton, was nearly twice Rose’s age at the time), the first woman to lead in a murder case, the first woman Recorder, the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey, and the first woman Treasurer of Gray’s Inn. Such a list of achievements only tells half the story, and does justice neither to the imperturbable manner in which Rose navigated her way to an isolated position of female seniority in a stoically masculine field, nor to the difficulty of the cases that she took on as a defence barrister: whilst defending some of England’s most infamous criminals, her celebrated and revered status – it is not an exaggeration to claim that she was almost deified in her hometown of Liverpool – was starkly juxtaposed against their notoriety.

Having graduated with her first in 1935, Rose was awarded a scholarship to Gray’s Inn, and, after completing her master of laws degree, was called to the Bar in 1937. The early period of her law career therefore ran contemporaneously with a period where there was a shortage of men able to serve as barristers, since they were instead serving in the war. This gave Rose a chance to make an immediate impact upon the legal landscape, but it would be wrong to label her meteoric rise as merely a product of being in the right place at the right time: this coincidence simply accelerated the process made inevitable by Rose’s unique talent and determination. There was nothing accidental or opportunistic about Rose’s career.

Following her involvement in several high profile cases, Rose was made KC in 1949, just a few months after the birth of her daughter, and, at 34, was the youngest person upon whom this honour was bestowed since 1783. Some of her most famous cases in the following years captured the attention of the nation, with her defence of gangster George Kelly in the 1950 ‘Cameo Murder’ case leading her to be named Woman of the Year by the Daily Mirror. In 1972, Rose became the first woman judge to sit at the Old Bailey, before becoming a High Court Judge in 1974. Of her appointment as Treasurer of Gray’s Inn in 1985, Rose said: ‘The legal world does not discriminate by sex or race and this is possibly an example of it working rather well’. The reality behind this statement is a testament to the groundbreaking work that Rose herself did to ensure that women in the law were taken seriously. Rose was born into a world where women did not have the vote and were barred from many of the professions, yet when she departed it, passing away in 2005, women were no longer viewed in the backward way that they had been, with Rose as one of the pioneers whom contemporary women have to thank for this.