‘hewer of wood and drawer of water’: meaning and origin

Chiefly used in the plural, the phrase hewer of wood and drawer of water designates a labourer of the lowest kind.
—Cf. also
wood-and-water joey, designating an odd-job man.

The phrase hewer of wood and drawer of water occurs, for example, in Labour must do as they preach, by Paul Routledge, Chief Political Commentator, published in The Mirror (London, England) of 13th May 1999:

EDUCATION, education, education, said Tony Blair. It was the key note of his election campaign.
Now education is returning to haunt Labour politicians who find their heart might be with party policy, but their head insists on putting their children’s interests first.
Mr Blair, the former Social Services Secretary Harriet Harman, Foreign Office Minister Liz Symons, Home Office Minister Paul Boateng, and Cabinet Office Minister Lord Falconer have all snubbed their local comprehensives in favour of something snazzier.
They have used their influence to ensure their kids get the best deal.
New Labour want the best for their own while the rest of us must put up with what we can get.
I have always thought it is morally wrong for children to be separated at the age of 11 into brainboxes and hewers of wood and drawers of water. The grammar school system condemned nine of out 10 kids to an inferior education.
[…]
[…] Those Labour politicians who offer comprehensive schooling as Hobson’s Choice for most kids, but choose to ignore the system for their own, are hypocrites.

The noun hewer designates a person who hews (i.e., who strikes forcibly with a cutting instrument), and the phrase refers to the Book of Joshua, 9:21-27, as it occurs in the King James Bible (1611):
—Context: The Gibeonites have tricked the Israelites into entering an alliance with them by saying that they are not Canaanites; despite this, the Israelites decide to keep the alliance by enslaving them instead:

21 And the Princes said vnto them, Let them liue, (but let them bee hewers of wood, and drawers of water, vnto all the Congregation,) as the Princes had promised them.
22 And Ioshua called for them, and he spake vnto them, saying, Wherefore haue ye beguiled vs, saying, We are very farre from you? when ye dwell among vs.
23 Now therefore ye are cursed, and there shall none of you bee freed from being bondmen, and hewers of wood, and drawers of water, for the house of my God.
24 And they answered Ioshua, and said, Because it was certainely told thy seruants, how that the Lord thy God commanded his seruant Moses to giue you all the land, and to destroy all the inhabitants of the land from before you, therefore we were sore afraid of our liues because of you, and haue done this thing.
25 And now behold, we are in thine hand: as it seemeth good and right vnto thee to doe vnto vs, doe.
26 And so did he vnto them, and deliuered them out of the hand of the children of Israel, that they slew them not.
27 And Ioshua made them that day, hewers of wood, and drawers of water for the Congregation, and for the Altar of the Lord, euen vnto this day, in the place which he should choose.

The earliest occurrences of the phrase hewers of wood and drawers of water that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of 11th September 1727—reprinted from the Weekly Journal of 2nd September 1727:

Countreymen, if you would not have any more such Proceedings, you should not chuse such Members. The best Rule I can give for knowing them by is: They are commonly such as Live amongst you, upon their own Estates independent of the Court, and are called honest Gentlemen of the Country. On the contrary you must return those who give Money to be elected, chuse Courtiers, Pensioners, Civil and Military Officers, Brockers [?], Stockjobbers, South Sea Directors and Sharpers; Men who will make it their private Interest to act in a good Intelligence with the Ministers, such as will not squabble with a Court about the Liberty of a Mobb, that is, in their Language the People, such as will not make a Route about publick Money embezled or misapplied, or Censure dishonourable Treaties; but vote every Thing just and Honourable, without knowing a Word of the Matter. Such, in Fine, as would only meet to be the Tax-Gatherers of the Court, while we, in the mean Time, should be the Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water under them.

2-: From Popular Prejudice concerning Partiality to the Interests of Hanover, to the Subjects of that Electorate, and particularly to the Hanoverian Troops in British Pay, freely Examined and Discussed; In which the Conduct of that Corps, at Dettingen particularly, and during the whole late Campaign, is truly Stated and Vindicated. In a Letter from an Officer at Hanover to a Hanoverian Nobleman at the Hague. Translated from the Original (London: Printed for M. Cooper, 1743):

[The English] treat even their own Fellow-subjects of Ireland and Scotland with as great Inhumanity and Imperiousness as they do Foreigners: They plume themselves not only upon their being free themselves, but being the Assertors and Bulwarks of Liberty all over Europe; and they vilify most of the Nations on the Continent, but particularly ours, for being Slaves, as they call us: But yet I defy them to point out any Nation in Europe kept in more abject Slavery and Dependance than the Irish are by themselves.
That Nation, for any thing I could ever see or hear, are as brave and faithful as their Neighbours; they have the same Laws and Customs, speak the same Language, have the same Religion, and are not less loyal to their Prince; yet, for all this, and that in Reality they and the English are but the same People divided into two different Islands, they seem, in most Respects, but as Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water to these boasting Bulwarks of the Liberties of Europe.

3-: From The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of 17th November 1743:

Wye’s Letter, verbatim, Nov. 12.
Last Letters from Paris say, that they are assured that the Alliance between France, Russia, Sweden and Prussia, will certainly take place.—If this is true, we may truly say the Business is done; for it can’t be supposed that Prussia comes into the Measures of those Powers for nothing. If the House of Brandenbourg should be raised to the Imperial Dignity, it may perhaps be thought necessary to procure it some new Acquisition, the better to support the Lustre of that Dignity; and what Morsel lies more convenient for that Family than H——? At the same time the Elector of Bavaria may be restored by Force of Arms to his hereditary Dominions, and some one of the Austrian Provinces added to them, in consideration of his laying down the Imperial Dignity. Saxony too may put in again for a Morsel of the Austrian Succession, to make him easy while Prussia is growing stronger: But the Question is, what will France get in the mean time?—Nothing but all the Austrian Netherlands: Then the Dutch become little better than Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Water to the French; and then stand clear poor England, unless the Almighty should be pleased to stretch out his Arm, and confound all the towering Projects of the House of Bourbon and her Adherents.

4-: From The Newcastle Courant (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumberland, England) of 23rd August 1746:

To the AUTHOR, &c. upon the Importance of CAPE BRETON.

I believe every true Briton was much delighted with the generous Ardour, and Herculean Labours of our brave Fellow-Subjects of North America, in the Conquest of that important Fortress; so important, that the French themselves esteem it more than any of their Possessions, as the very Name (the Royale) by which they call it, determines its Pre-heminence [sic] above all the rich and fruitful Islands of America: And no Wonder, when the great and national Advantages of a plentiful Fishery are maturely considered. The richest Mines of Peru, which yield abundance of Gold for the Labour of digging, are less profitable; because more laborious and expensive than taking Fish. But that is not all: For Fisheries are the best Nurseries of Seamen; because the Voyage is short, the Employment active, and well fitted for Landmen, who being as useful in Taking and Salting Fish as Mariners, are therefore employed for Cheapness, and of course soon become expert Seamen. And thus the Fisheries add every Year Multitudes of Mariners to the national Stock. Hence it is that Britain derives originally its Commerce and Riches. Hence ariseth the Ability of equipping powerful Fleets, such as give this Kingdom the Dominion of the Sea. Hence it is that England has been able to withstand the mighty Power of France, in its Way to universal Monarchy. It is therefore a just Policy in the French to try every Art for engrossing the Fishery of America, as the only sure Means leads to Wealth, Maritime Power, and universal Domination? In that Case, this Country becomes a petty Province, my brave Country, Hewers of Wood Drawers of Water, and Wool-Combers to the Grand Monarch; and all Europe, in the End, must fall a Sacrifice to his boundless Ambition.

5-: From a letter, by a person signing themself T. Bell, published in The New-York Evening Post (New York City, New York, modern-day USA) of 4th September 1749:

For the space of twelve Years, it has not been in the power of any of my Enemies, to charge me justly with actually transgressing any Act or Law of this Government, except the intentional Design, &c. towards Robert Livingston, Esq; Junr. transacted near a 11 Years ago: And for which I am to this Day reproach’d tho’ that Gentleman and the then commander in Chief, afforded me their generous Pardons: Notwithstanding, ’tis insinuated by some, that, for that only Offence, I ought to be debar’d the liberty of the City, being still inclin’d (had I an Opportunity) to abuse the same to the worst ends and purposes: However, I can’t see how they could help themselves, if I should apply to that truly Honourable and most worthy Gentleman the C——f J——ce for releif [sic]; offering to his Honours acceptance such Bail and Security for my peaceable and honest Behavour [sic] as the Law of this province requires of persons of my romantic and comical Humour and Reputation: Introducing my self at the same Time, as a splitter of Wood and a Drawer of Water.

6-: From Lord Bolingbroke’s Idea of a patriot King, published in The Scots Magazine (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of October 1749:

Such factions as these can never create any obstruction to a prince who pursues the union of his subjects, nor disturb the peace of his government. The men who compose them, must be desperate and impotent; the most despicable of all characters when they go together. Every honest and sensible man will distinguish himself out of their number: and they will remain, as they deserve to be, hewers of wood and drawers of water to their fellow-subjects.

7-: From A criticism on the Idea of a patriot King, published in The Scots Magazine (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of October 1749:

I do not think it generous, and, consequently, I cannot think it decent, to call a nonjuring Jacobite a fool. To call a man a fool for sacrificing his interest to his principle, even tho’ that principle be such a one as borders upon enthusiastick madness, will, I fear, give too much countenance to that doctrine now so openly avowed, “That every man is a fool who sacrifices his immediate interest to any principle whatever.” And this doctrine every honest man, and every lover of social liberty, will certainly discourage as much as possible; because, should it once begin to prevail generally among the people, the establishment of despotick rule will be the necessary consequence; and those who have made the deluded Jacobites their hewers of wood and drawers of water, will be then reduced to the fame despicable condition by some arbitrary and tyrannical monarch.

8-: From A short View of the Encroachments of France in America, published in The Aberdeen Journal (Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland) of 29th May 1750:

It is an old observation, that France has gained more advantages by treaties than by victories. […]
Thus it happened at the Treaty of Utrecht; we lost all the fruits of a long course of victory by the succeeding Pacification, in which this Nation was shamefully duped, if the Negotiators were not: our greatest, even our commercial interests were either neglected or given up; and the French Encroachment on St. Domingo ceded as a right: a concession then thought of little consequence, but such as both Spain and Britain have just reason to repent at this day; since by that means the Spaniards of that Island are become little better than hewers of wood, and drawers of water to the French; and our trade from Jamaica has felt severely the establishment of such a power, in the track of Navigation through the windward passage to Europe.