In a secret police operation, gold jewellery worth £4m has been recovered from the ruins of a pawnbrokers destroyed in the Croydon riots.

The Albemarle and Bond shop on London Road, was torched during the disorder on August 8.

Few people knew five safes filled with jewellery lay buried in the ruined basement of the shop, following the collapse of the building.

The dangerous structure left after the shop was torched meant insurance assessors were unable to gain access to the vaults, which were trapped beneath 45 tons of rubble.

A secret operation between armed police and a team of safe crackers, has seen 3,500 customers reunited with their gold.

Joanna Collins, area manager for Albermarle and Bond, said: "Lots of customers couldn't get past the police cordon and were crying, believing they'd lost sentimental items of jewellery, including wedding rings and pieces their parents and loved ones had left to them."

It was feared only solidified metal would be recovered and the company arranged for a specialist smelting company to separate the different carats.

Motion sensitive-CCTV and round-the-clock security protected the gold until it could be salvaged.

The badly burned safes were eventually reached before Christmas, when roads surrounding the shop closed early in the morning and armed police officers guarded a giant crane as it hoisted the safes to a waiting lorry.

To prevent the risk of hijack, staff and drivers wore flak jackets as the police convoy escorted the lorry to a secure warehouse in Slough, where safe makers spent two weeks cracking open the safes.

David Millard, Albemarle and Bond's regional manager who co-ordinated the rescue, said: "Every crook and villain in London would have known the safes were being lifted and what was inside them."

Nearly all of the 4,500 items were found to be intact inside the safe and last week, customers began to be reunited with their possessions.

Miss Collins said of the process: "We had customers on the shop floor crying with happiness, which set me off. Most of the pieces were fine, apart from the smell of smoke."