Star who raised the bar

Daughter's biography of a distinguished legal pioneer tells a vivid and comprehensive story

By Jonathan Goldberg, November 2, 2012

Rose Heilbron/ By Hilary Heilbron/ Hart Publishing, £20

Leading lady: Rose Heilbron and fellow judges at Westminster Abbey in 1950

Leading lady: Rose Heilbron and fellow judges at Westminster Abbey in 1950

This biography of an extraordinary woman — sub-titled: The Story of England’s First Woman Queen’s Counsel and Judge — is written by her daughter Hilary, herself now a distinguished commercial Silk.
Rose Heilbron was the Margaret Thatcher of the law, a woman who broke through the glass ceiling by sheer force of personality and talent. Yet both would indignantly have rejected the title of “feminist”. Like Thatcher, she had a Denis as a tower of strength. This was her doctor husband Nat who was devoted to her for more than 60 years.

The list of firsts in Rose’s career was unique. She was the first woman law student to be awarded a scholarship by Gray’s Inn, and later became their first woman Treasurer; the first woman to defend in a murder trial; the first woman Silk at the precocious age of 34 in 1949; the first woman Recorder in 1956; the first woman ever allowed to sit at the Old Bailey in 1972; and the first woman Leader of the Northern Circuit in 1973. Alas, she was only the second ever woman High Court Judge, Dame Elizabeth Lane pipping her to the post.

She proved a fine judge until her retirement in 1988. Born and bred and long practising in what was then still the great port city of Liverpool, she became a media darling despite the stifling rules which then existed at the Bar against self-publicity. These she always respected faithfully.

The local paper wrote of her at age 24 “A dark vivacious Jewess has pleaded in the Birkenhead Magistrates Court for the first time”. It was the start of an unrequited love affair with the press, which never subsided. They invariably called her “Britain’s Portia.” Although she never gave an interview or volunteered a photograph or commented on a case the whole of her career, her dramatic good looks and brilliant courtroom style brought early success and fame.

She defended many of the most sensational murder cases of her era. In those days of capital punishment, the media spotlight on such trials was intense. She was not always so lucky with her male colleagues, however. I remember from my own first days on the Northern Circuit in the early ’70s, the jealousy and backbiting which her success provoked. Undoubtedly those were misogynist (and sometimes antisemitic) times.
Any woman then joining the Northern Circuit was initiated by standing on the table at Mess while her half-drunk male colleagues roared their approval — or otherwise.

There was the constant canard (repeated in whispers even to pupils like myself) that she had made hay while the men were away fighting in the Second World War. It was untrue. I watched her in court and she knocked spots off most of the men. Once, I had the good luck to sit behind her in a murder trial when my pupil-master had to go elsewhere. She was kind to me.

I vividly recall her multicoloured and incredibly detailed, longhand notes for her legal submissions and speech, in the days before computers. Each colour of ink signified some different code to her but I was too timid to ask what it was. She even wrote “ML” whenever she proposed to say “My Lord.” This typified the prodigiously hard work and iron discipline that she imposed on herself.

The Lord Chancellor wrote to her prophetically on her retirement: “As barrister and judge, you have pioneered the way for the many women who will follow you.”
This lucidly written and gripping biography draws on the copious archive of diaries and letters which Rose fortunately kept. It is a fitting filial memorial to a great woman.

Jonathan Goldberg QC, a leading London barrister, is the JC’s ‘Ask the QC’ columnist

Last updated: 3:53pm, November 5 2012