Work Camps and Company Towns: Case Study – Abadan | Ian Seccombe & Richard Lawless

by Ian Seccombe & Richard Lawless

Of the new towns in the Persian gulf created following the discovery and development of the region’s oil resources, Abadan was by far the most important and experienced the most spectacular growth. In the space of less than 50 years, Abadan grew from a village of a few hundred fishermen and cultivators to a city of almost a quarter of a million people, the largest city in the Persian gulf and one of Iran’s major urban centres. The most dramatic increase in the population occurred during and after the Second World War, when the refinery was rapidly expanded and the company’s workforce more than doubled. From an estimated 100,000 inhabitants in 1943, the town· grew to 143,000 in 1952, and to 226,000 at the first national census in 1956.

Strong immigration represented the key component of urban growth. Abadan was a city of immigrants and the great majority of the adult population had been born elsewhere (Table 3.6).


Figures for 1956 reveal that 30.4 per cent of refinery workers had been born in Khuzestan, 28.9 per cent in Fars and 19.2 per cent in Esfahan; 90 per cent of manual workers came from these three provinces, whereas Tehran, Mazandaran and Esfahan were the main sources of managerial staff (Table 3.7).


Abadan was a classic company town and work in the great oil refinery built in 1912 by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (after 1932 the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) dominated its employment structure. At the end of 1949 an estimated 133,000 inhabitants out of a total population of 173,000 were company employees and their dependants. Most of the remaining population were workers employed by local contractors engaged in company projects and independent craftsmen and merchants and their families. According to the results of the 1956 census, 55 per cent of the city’s total active population were employed in the refinery in that year and 85 per cent of those in the secondary sector.
The huge refinery with its extensive tankfarms, jetties and loading terminals overshadowed the entire urban area (Figures 3.1, 3.2).


At an early date Costain’s had been employed by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to layout housing areas for the Company’s expatriate staff[9] immediately to the west of the refinery in a district that became known as Braim. In appearance these areas resembled a modern European housing estate or garden city with villas and bungalows neatly aligned along wide roads planted with trees (Figure 3.3.).


The standard houses for senior salaried staff consisted of four or five bedrooms, two bathrooms, servant’s room, store and courtyard. Until 1934 virtually no company housing was built for the Persian workforce (Table 3.8.)


and to the east of the refinery, stretching back from the waterfront between two creeks, there grew up a maze of streets and alleyways with houses built around traditional courtyards. This area, built mostly by private initiative and containing an extensive bazaar, was known as Abadan town. To the north and east lay a second area of traditional housing, but laid out on a regular gridiron plan with numbered streets. It was in this district, Ahmadabad, that the Karun Engineering Company built a housing estate of 290 houses after the Second World War.The oil company was responsible for the construction of the roads, sewage system and water points for the estate and in return the Karun Engineering Company agreed to let the houses to refinery workers at controlled rents.[10] Abadan town and Ahmadabad were outside the company’s direct control and were administered by the Persian municipality, but they were dependent on the company for electric power and daily supplies of drinking water. To the south-east of Abadan town and Ahmadabad and to the north of the Bawarda tank farm, a second housing area for European employees of the Company was established after the Second World War.

Beginning in 1935 the company built five housing estates for wage earning personnel, Bahmanshir in 1935 to the north of Ahmadabad (Figure 3.2), Farahabad (1945), Bahar (1948), and Pirooz (1958) to the north of the refinery and main tank farm, and Jamshid (1952) to the south-east of Ahmadabad. The standard houses for wage-earning personnel were built in terraces (Figure 3.4), and consisted of two-three rooms together with a courtyard in which a small kitchen, shower and toilet were located. These efforts by the company to provide housing for its Persian employees were, however, totally inadequate given the size of the local labour force. The large unplanned squatter settlement that grew up on the northern and eastern edges of Bahmanshir during the 1950s and 1950’s provided eloquent testimony to the acute housing problems experienced by the Persian workforce.


In 1956 a little more than a third of the city’s population was living in company-controlled areas; 70,000 in the five housing estates for wage-earning employees (Bahmanshir, Jamshid, Farahabad, Bahar and Pirooz), 10,000 in Bawarda & Park, and 6,000 in Braim. Densities ranged from 33 inhabitants per hectare in Braim, to 60 inh./ha in Bawarda and 150 inh./ha in the workers’ estates. The rest of the population, almost two-thirds of the total, lived in areas administered by the Persian municipality; 38,000 in Abadan town, 68,000 in Ahmadabad, 20,000 in the squatter settlement and a further 10,000 scattered along the banks of the Bahmanshir river and the east bank of the Shatt al Arab. Densities here were very much higher than in the company areas; 600 inhabitants per hectare in Abadan town and 650 inh./ha in Ahmadabad and the squatter settlement. In Braim. Park. Bawarda and the workers’ estates each dwelling was occupied by one family whereas in Ahmadabad and Abadan town most houses were subdivided among several families. with many families occupying only one room. The contrast between Braim. where over 80 per cent of families had more than four rooms. and Ahmadabad. where almost three-quarters of the families occupied a single room. was particularly striking (Table 3.9).


Contrasts in the provision of urban amenities were equally pronounced. In Braim. Bawarda and the workers’ estates all the roads were surfaced and well-maintained; each house was supplied with electricity and piped drinking water and was connected to the main sewage network. The houses in Braim and Bawarda had bathrooms and both electric light and power. while the homes in Braim had the additional advantage of air-conditioning. In Abadan town and much of Ahmadabad. although’ most of the roads were surfaced and the houses supplied with electric light. drinking water was distributed by public fountain and not supplied to individual houses and the sewage system was rudimentary. The squatter settlement and the north-eastern sector of Ahmadabad were the leastfavoured areas. Public water fountains were rare. there was no electricity supply and untreated sewage collected in the unpaved streets which were virtually impassable for vehicles. Although commercial establishments (shops. cafes and restaurants) were heavily concentrated in Abadan town and Ahmadabad. there were no public parks and recreational facilities were rare. The workers’ estates were also almost entirely lacking in the provision of recreational amenities. In Braim. however. social life revolved around the numerous clubs which were well equipped with swimming pools and other sports facilities.
In Abadan. as in most company towns. probably the most striking feature was the strict segregation of the inhabitants by ethnicity and occupational status. a policy which gave rise to sharp breaks between adjacent areas containing population groups of markedly different status. In this way the strictly hierarchical occupational structure of the company was faithfully reflected in the spatial patterning of the city’s residential areas.

This ecological pattern has been described by Abu Lughod as conforming to an “apartheid model”. [11] Vieille [12] has argued that from the outset the planning of residential areas at Abadan was determined by the oil company’s desire to isolate its foreign employees, principally the Europeans, but also Indians, from the Persian workforce and the rest of the local population, primarily for security reasons. Later, a part of the local workforce, notably the skilled artisans, were also provided with company houses in the workers’ estates, isolating them in turn from the other Persian workers who remained in Abadan town and Ahmadabad.

The influence of the company’s policies on the spatial patterning of the city’s population remained after AIOC was nationalized and the number of foreign employees declined dramatically. Immediately before nationalisation, the refinery employed some 3,000 foreign nationals out of a total workforce of 40,000. In 1950 the number of foreigners fell to 50, rising to only 300 in 1956. Nevertheless, in that year a survey of heads of household working at the refinery revealed that 94.6 per cent of those living at Braim and 91.2 per cent of those in Park and Bawarda, the former European areas, were staff and senior management (Table 3.10).


In the workers’ estates the majority were skilled manual workers, whereas at Ahmadabad almost two-thirds were unskilled workers. Thus, the ecological structure remained highly segregated, retaining to a remarkable degree the pattern of the divided city created by the company.


  1. Shahnavaz, 1980.
  2. National and Province Statistics of the First Census of lran, November 1956, Tehran, Ministry of Interior, 1961, Volume I, Number and distribution of the inhabitants for Iran and the Census provinces.
  3. Longrigg, 1961, 123
  4. Gach Saran had been brought into production in 1940 after the completion of a pipeline to Abadan but closed down in the same year because of the decline in demand for oil. Because of tribal unrest in this remote area the wells were sealed and development of the field did not resume until after the war
  5. AI-Shuaiby, 1976,288
  6. This section is based on Gornall, 1965
  7. Rumaihi, 1976, 95
  8. This section is based on Vieille, 1964
  9. Great Britain, Naval Intelligence Division, 1945, 496
  10. ILO, 1950, 34
  11. Abu Lughod, 1980, 304
  12. Vieille, 1964,378

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