When fire ripped through Gatton Hall 70 years ago, not only was a beautiful building destroyed, but one of the finest collection of treasures in Europe ruined.

Today at Gatton, files containing reports from many national newspapers detail what happened in the early hours of Sunday, February 5, 1934 and record the heroic attempts to salvage many priceless items.

But none can tell it better than those who were there, or those whose relatives tried to save the home of estate owner Sir Jeremiah Colman.

Fay Reed was six at the time and clearly remembers the effect the fire had on her family. Her mother, Ada May Sherwood, known as Midge, was so upset a friend gave her a singing canary to cheer her up.

The Sherwood family lived in Upper Gatton. Mrs Reed's father was Colman's under gamekeeper, Arthur Sherwood.

She said: "He came home for Sunday lunch that day but could not eat it, he was so upset. He was a real countryman and would never miss a meal so for him not to want to eat it, something must have been wrong.

"Communications were not as good as they are now and we never knew what had happened until daddy came home. He sat down and said you would not believe this but the hall has burnt out'.

"The mood was devastation and frustration because they could not get enough water to put the fire out. Daddy was there until they came away at lunch time. He was in the fields looking after pheasants because February was still shooting time. He heard about it through word of mouth and raced down to the hall to help as much as he could."

Sir Jeremiah's secretary woke at around 5am to find her room full of smoke and ran to the village to get help. Many believe the fire, thought to have started in the cellar, would have been put out sooner if water were closer to hand.

The estate's ponds had to be pumped dry to fight the fire and one newspaper told how a firefighter fell through the ice of one of the ponds and some of the hoses were run a quarter of a mile for water.

Police, firemen and villagers formed a cordon from the house to outside in a desperate attempt to rescue what treasures they could. The famous marble hall, a replica of the Corsini Chapel in Rome, was ruined and other lost treasures included precious art work, books, gold and silver plate and old furniture.

A national newspaper said 75-year-old Sir Jeremiah, who was out of the country at the time, would be told of the disaster by letter, as it was feared telephone or telegraph might affect his health.

Mrs Reed, now 76, added: "In those days they kept things away from small children. But I can remember them saying all those beautiful treasures have been destroyed and saying how awful it was that Sir Jeremiah was away." Pat Trevett's grandfather was estate gamekeeper Walter Harlowe. "I know they had to carry a lot of the water from the Engine Pond to put the fire out," said 65-year-old Mrs Trevett, who still lives in Reigate.

"It was the most beautiful house inside, which had the most beautiful marble. It was totally destroyed, so I am told, and the colour ruined."

She added: "My grandmother said my grandfather arrived home late that night totally covered in soot. Everyone helped with getting as much as possible out. He was always very upset about the fire and it was spoken about quite a lot.

"He was frustrated that he could not do more and I do remember it was a very important factor in his life and stayed with him until he died."

A new house was built on the estate and Sir Jeremiah Colman continued to live there until his death in 1942 but its former glory could never be restored.

l Gatton Park is open to the public on Sunday for the last time this year. It is open from 1pm to 5pm and entry is £3 for adults, children free.