Rose Heilbron processing from Westminster Abbey to Parliament in October 1950
DAME Rose Heilbron’s glittering career as a barrister and judge was one of countless firsts and fantastic achievements – and now the daughter who followed in her footsteps has written the incredible story of her life.
For Hilary Heilbron, 63, and a barrister and QC herself, it was the definition of a labour of love, and she says: “I was only a small child when my mother was at the height of her fame and while I always knew she was famous I don’t think I realised how famous she was in the 1950s.”
Rose, who was born in Liverpool in 1914 and died, aged 91, in 2005, was a role model for working wives and mothers in general – she was married to Nathaniel (Nat) Burstein for more than 60 years and Hilary was their only child – and female lawyers and judges in particular.
Her CV of firsts was astonishing. In 1935, she became the first woman to achieve a first class honours degree in law at the University of Liverpool. In 1949, she became one of the two first women King’s Counsel (a KC or these days QC – Queen’s Counsel – is a senor barrister), alongside Helena Normanton. In 1956, she became Recorder of Burnley and England’s first woman judge. In 1972, she became the first woman to sit as a judge in the Old Bailey. In 1974, she became only the second female High Court judge. And in 1978 she was made Presiding Judge on the Northern Circuit – the first woman Presiding Judge of any Circuit.
And you only have to look at some of the former Belvedere School pupil’s press cuttings to realise the dramatic impact Rose Heilbron made during her career: Housewife Who Is Britain’s Portia. Recorder Rose Wins Again. Is She Our Cleverest Woman? That Girl Rosie...The Greatest Lawyer In The World. Rose Heilbron QC Ends Another Brilliant Case – Judge Talks Of Her ‘Eloquent Advocacy’. 4th ‘Save’ From The Gallows.
But her daughter, who practices commercial litigation and international arbitration in London, stresses: “My mother didn’t set out to be a pioneer. She enjoyed her career and it was a hobby as well as her work – fame was something that came with it. I think she captured the public’s imagination because what she did was very rare. She was also very good at what she did – and she was beautiful and young.”
This was a point not lost on journalists who, in pre-politically correct times, went to town writing about the female lawyer. After she had been practicing for just five weeks, the Birkenhead News, in May 1939, described her as “a dark vivacious Jewess.”
“It was a different era and language has certainly changed!” says Hilary who, further explaining her mother’s fame, adds: “She couldn’t speak to the Press, but cases were fully-reported in those days, with page after page of reports, including all the questions put by the barristers. Everyone knew about her cases in great detail.”
One of those headlines – 4th ‘Save’ From The Gallows – begs the question of how many defendents she saved from the noose. Hilary says: “It’s difficult to say because I could only work on the documents I had, but there were certainly several.”
In one of her most famous cases, however, she couldn’t save her client, George Kelly, from death. On February 8 1950 he was found guilty of the murders of Leonard Thomas, the manager of the Cameo cinema in Wavertree, and his assistant, John Catterall – and was hanged at Walton Jail on March 28. Another man, Charles Connolly, was advised that if he pleaded guilty to robbery his murder charge would be dropped and he would get 10 years. He agreed. More than 53 years after Kelly was hanged – on October 28, 2003 – the Court of Appeal ruled that the convictions of Kelly and Connolly were unsafe.
Hilary says: “Unfortunately my mother was unwell by this time and so she never knew. It had been her first big case.”
In 1952, meanwhile, Rose represented trainee footman Harold Winstanley (she was instructed by veteran Liverpool solicitor and ECHO columnist Rex Makin), who ran amok with a gun at Knowsley Hall. He wounded Lady Derby and murdered her butler, Walter Stallard, and under-butler, Douglas Stuart. The only issue was Winstanley’s mental condition. He was found guilty of the murder of Mr Stallard, but insane and sent to Broadmoor. The other murder was left on the books.
Away from the pressure of high-profile court cases, Rose was able to rely on the tremendous love and support of her husband, Nat, a GP who had a practice in Anfield. Hilary says he was happy to remain in the same practice for almost 40 years and never jealous of his wife’s success – “On the contrary, he was happy to act as her consort.”
She adds: “Her family was very important to her and my father was the bedrock of her life. She enjoyed her work but I don’t think she could have done it to the extent she did without him. He kept her feet on the ground and was an old-fashioned and courteous gentleman.”
Nat, who died in 2010, one month short of his 105th birthday, was also right behind Rose’s idea that their daughter should use the name ‘Heilbron’ rather than Burstein to help her in her own legal career.
Rex Makin paid warm tribute to the couple, saying: “Rose blazed a trail which many other women followed. She was very loyal to those she worked with and to her roots. And she was blessed with a delightful husband, who worshipped her.”
It is impossible to overplay the pioneering achievements of Rose Heilbron, who was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1974. As her daughter reminds us: “When she was born women didn’t have the vote, were still not able to enter many of the professions, including the legal profession, and children left school at 14 – it was like the first series of Downton Abbey!”
Rose Heilbron by Hilary Heilbron is published by Hart Publishing at £20.