In 1989, Cambridge businessman, Selwyn Image was volunteering at a soup and sandwich shelter in the city. He was keen to find out what he could do to help from the people who were using the shelter.

In one particular conversation, a homeless man shot down every idea that Selwyn had. Increasingly frustrated, he asked: “Well, what do you want?” The man responded: “I would have thought that would have been obvious to an intelligent man like you. I want somewhere where I can work, where I feel I belong, and where I can recover my self-respect.”

Then, in a sentence that would change Selwyn’s life forever, the man said: “And what are you going to do about it?”

Selwyn remembered some work experience he had done 30 years previously in Paris, when trying to brush up his French for a language exam. It was at a social enterprise which provided a home and work to people who had experienced homelessness, and it seemed to provide just what this man was asking for.

Not knowing if Emmaus even still existed, the next day Selwyn went to the library and picked up a Paris phone book. He managed to reach Abbé Pierre, told him he would like to open an Emmaus community in Cambridge, and Emmaus UK was born.

In Selwyn’s words:

“Matters came to a head for me when I talked to an articulate and intelligent man.  His story was a familiar one. Broken marriage, move into digs, redundancy and drink to anaesthetise the pain and humiliation of life on the street, and the bitter reality of no home no job, no job no home. Every attempt I made to be hopeful and positive was shot down with ruthless logic until, in a shameful moment of irritation, I said: ‘What is it you want, then?’  He told me patiently but with an intensity I can still hear: ‘I want to work and belong. I want my self-respect back. I don’t want to queue for handouts or have to beg for food. And I don’t want people to cross the street to avoid me’. At that moment I remembered the Emmaus community in Paris where I had worked as a student 30 years before, and knew we had to try starting one here.”

The site at Landbeach was acquired in March 1991.  Originally two derelict buildings in a field, the site was worked on by volunteers, enabling the first companions to move into a couple of caravans later that year. The shop was opened officially in July 1992 by Terry Waite CBE and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie.

Since those early days the community has grown steadily and is now able to offer up to 44 companions a home and the opportunity to volunteer their time in what has now become a successful and self-sustaining social enterprise, collecting and selling people’s surplus goods.

Abbé Pierre and the creation of the Emmaus Movement

Abbé Pierre and the creation of the Emmaus Movement

Although Selwyn Image brought the Emmaus movement to the UK by opening Emmaus Cambridge in 1991, the history of Emmaus starts in France.

The first Emmaus community was founded in Paris, in 1949, by Father Henri-Antoine Grouès, better known as Abbé Pierre. He was an MP, Catholic priest and former member of the French Resistance who fought to provide homes for those who lived on the streets of Paris.

Find out more