The late Dame Rose Heilbron’s remarkable catalogue of firsts reads like a record book: her career was truly unprecedented. She was one of the first women 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 in England (the other, Helen Normanton, was nearly twice Rose’s age at the time),the first woman appointed a 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.
Rose was born in Liverpool, the daughter of a hotelier, Max Heilbron. She went to the Belvedere School and Liverpool University, where in 1935 she was one of the first two women to gain a first class honours degree in law. She was awarded a scholarship at Gray’s Inn in 1936, and became one of only two women to hold a master of laws degree in 1937. Two years later she was called to the Bar, and joined the Northern Circuit in 1940.
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.
Rose practised mainly personal injury and criminal law. By 1946, she had appeared in 10 murder trials. Just a few months after the birth of her daughter Hilary in 1949, she was appointed one of the first two female King’s Counsel. Aged 34, she was the youngest KC since 1783.
As the first woman to lead in a murder case in 1950, Rose defended George Kelly in the infamous “Cameo cinema murder”, a case which captured the attention of the nation and led to the Daily Mirror naming Rose as ‘Woman of the Year’. Although she was unable to save Kelly from the gallows, the Court of Appeal quashed his conviction as unsafe in 2003, making it one of Britain’s oldest miscarriages of justice.
Rose was appointed as the first female Recorder in November 1956. In 1972, Rose was appointed as the first female judge to sit at the Old Bailey. She became leader of the Northern Circuit in 1973, and then the second woman High Court judge in 1974 after Elizabeth Lane. Despite her expertise in criminal law, she was assigned to the Family Division.
In 1975, she was appointed to chair a committee to consider the reform of rape laws. The committee’s recommendations that the identity of rape complainants should be kept secret, and that the defence should be limited in its ability to cross-examine the complainant about their sexual history to attack character both subsequently became law.
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.
Her daughter, Hilary, also became a barrister and was in 1987 appointed a QC, the 29th woman QC.