OBITUARY: Award-winning Hampstead gardener and tour company MD Gerda Doll-Steinberg

PUBLISHED: 12:22 06 April 2018 | UPDATED: 16:38 06 April 2018

Gerda Doll-Steinberg in her award-winning Hampstead garden which was inspired by her love of British stately homes Picture: Tommy Candler.

Gerda Doll-Steinberg in her award-winning Hampstead garden which was inspired by her love of British stately homes Picture: Tommy Candler.


Award winning Hampstead gardener and Managing Director of British Tours Ltd Gerda Adele Doll-Steinberg died on Feburary 14.

Gerda Doll-Steinberg with her awards. Picture: Christel KvantGerda Doll-Steinberg with her awards. Picture: Christel Kvant

Gerda Doll-Steinberg’s remarkable life transcended many of the deep chasms that beset Europe in her time.

She was the daughter of a German Farmer and worked on the family farm in Lower Saxony as a girl.

She saw the distant Allied bombing of Bremerhaven and the streams of refugees fleeing war.

Allied prisoners of war worked on the farm.

Gerda Doll-Steinberg is made honorary life member of Les Clefs Dor in 1995.Gerda Doll-Steinberg is made honorary life member of Les Clefs Dor in 1995.

In post-war years as a Girl Scout she hitchhiked to Berlin where she crossed quietly into East Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie.

She said it was for a challenge, this time to cross The Iron Curtain and explore the Russian sector.

In 1956 she attended an aunt’s wedding in Bedfordshire.

She loved the way of life in England and its people’s sense of humour and decided to make England her home, settling as a housekeeper to a family in Windsor.

Gerda subsequently became a translator to a company in the International Engineering Construction Industry during which time she travelled the world extensively and met her future husband, the chemical engineer Alfred Doll-Steinberg.

The issue of their differing faiths was addressed and overcoming obstacles from both families she decided to convert to Judaism.

Over the course of a year she travelled back and forth between London and Jerusalem, where she was interviewed by several Rabbis and finally converted. A chasm had been crossed.

Alfred had co-founded a tour company, Undergraduate Tours, while at Cambridge which provided private tours of Oxford and Cambridge.

Gerda joined the company in 1966 and became its managing director.

Under her management the company greatly expanded and started providing private tours around the whole of Britain with expert tour guides.

In the 1970s, reflecting the expansion, Gerda acquired the company British Tours Ltd which dated back to the 1930’s.

Her love for the English lifestyle had led to a particular interest in stately homes and their gardens and she enabled her clients to experience the beauty of many such great houses around Britain, many off-the-beaten-track.

Her contribution to tourism was recognised in 1995 when she was made an Honorary Life Member of Les Clefs D’Or.

Whilst taking a backseat role in recent years after her son Jason took an active role, she remained involved with day to day events up until her death, having steered the company to be a significant player in British tourism.

The stately homes and their gardens drove another passion, gardening.

From 1966 when she and Alfred moved to their house in Hampstead, Gerda used the inspiration from her knowledge of the gardens and grounds of the great houses to redesign and enrich the Hampstead garden.

Her garden was twice entered for competitions and won the “Best Garden in London” prize on both occasions.

The garden underwent many transformations over 52 years in style, size and design.

It was home to a vast collection of mature shrubs, plants and trees including catalpas, a ginkgo, a huge cercis - sadly lost in the 1987 storm - a beautiful hawthorne with scented white flowers, a metasequoia, a very unusual Swedish birch, huge amazingly well established camellias and many others.

In the 1980s a visiting group of horticulturalists marvelled at the array describing it as “an illustrated dictionary of plants”.

Gerda later rethought the whole design, focusing on “minimalist planting” with an eye on calm and serenity.

The London Magazine described it “as much more than the sum of its traditional English ingredients of pristine lawn, stately trees, climbing roses and flowering shrubs. Gerda has combined them with architectural elements and precision to demonstrate the valuable design principle of “’less is more’”.

She was a loving and warm mother to her children Daniel, Jason and Sarah, and in due course became a grandmother to Nicola, Jamie, Ben and Rumi of whom she was incredibly proud.

Additional words by Roger Thompson.

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