HEILBRON, Rose [1914-2005]

The list of ‘firsts' achieved by Rose Heilbron in her career makes astounding reading and evidences a huge legacy to those women who followed her in the male dominated legal profession. In 1949 she became not only one of the first two women to be appointed King's Counsel but aged 34 was the youngest to take silk since 1783. The first woman to be appointed judge in 1957 she also became the first woman commissioner of assize and in January 1972 the first woman to sit as a judge at the Old Bailey. Elected leader of the Northern Circuit in 1973 she was the first woman to be leader of any circuit and in 1974 became the second woman High Court judge.

If her list of ‘firsts' is impressive the catalogue of cases she handled as a criminal lawyer reads like the product of an over-fertile crime-writer's imagination. In 1949 she defended George Kelly, a defendant in the famous Liverpool ‘Cameo murders' case. After two trials Kelly was found guilty and executed notwithstanding the exceptional case presented on his behalf by Heilbron. The fact that she should have attained a not guilty verdict was amply illustrated in 2003 when the conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal. Criminal cases were much more closely reported in the newspapers in the 1950s and this contributed to the near celebrity status she acquired as one of the most successful defence lawyers of her day. Other famous cases included the defence of three Liverpool dockers accused of conspiracy to incite and illegal strike, a case withdrawn by the Attorney General just before it was to be put to the jury (1951).

Rose Heilbron was born in 1914 at 26 St James Road, off Upper Parliament Street near the Anglican Cathedral. Her father, Max Heilbron, was an emigration agent and ran a boarding house for Jewish migrants, then later a hotel. The family moved to 22 Menlove Gardens North in Allerton, naming the house ‘Anrose' after his daughters. After attending Belvedere School Rose took her law degree at Liverpool University. She married Nathanial Burstein, a general practitioner, in 1945. They lived in her father's house until having a home built on Allerton Road in 1959 which they called 'Parklands'. The Heilbrons moved to London when he retired and she was appointed to the High Court bench. She died in Highgate in 2005, her husband living on until shortly before his 105th birthday.

The emigrant agency run by Heilbron's father Max

22 Menlove Gardens L18

Parklands, Allerton Road L18

Rose Heilbron and her husband bought an acre of land on Allerton Road from ship-owner Sir Alan Todd who owned the adjoining Maryton Grange. The house was built to their design and they moed in on 22nd May 1959.


There is an abundance of material available on the various aspects of Rose Heilbron's life and career including a comprehensive entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (access with your local library card number). For a rounder, more intimate picture there is nothing to rival the biography written by her daughter Hilary:  Rose Heilbron: The Story of England's First Woman Queen's Counsel and Judge (2012. ISBN 9781849464017). There is an excellent interview with Hilary Heilbron on YouTube. Rose Heilbron featured on the BBC Radio programme Great Lives, being 'nominated' by Cherie Blair. The programme can be found at the BBC Website.