"It would certainly not have occurred to nineteenth-century English gentlemen to do [manual work], nor could Victorian ladies undertake housework either. That was, after all, the whole point of being a lady -- you didn't do anything, except tell the servants what to do, receive your callers, and work on your embroidery or perhaps paint decorative flowers on the fire screen for the hearth."
What Jane Austen Ate and
Charles Dickens Knew, Daniel Pool
Simon & Schuster/1993
Servants were a necessity in the middle and upper-class households of the 1800s.
Cleaning, laundry, cooking, care of horses and carriages -- every detail of daily life involved hard physical labor and a 'staff,' of some size, was required to allow ladies and gentlemen to maintain their genteel lifestyle.
While there were a number of different kinds of maids, in simple households, a 'maid-of-all-work' was hired to wash, scrub, cook, clean, take care of children and perform myriad other tasks. This was a back-breaking job, often starting at six in the morning and stretching until eleven at night, all for a minimum wage.
In homes where more than one maid was affordable, housemaids were responsible for all the labor of keeping the house clean and the fires burning. The housemaid heated water for baths (and toted it up and down stairs), cleaned the ashes out of grates, made the beds, beat the rugs, emptied the chamber pots, dusted, polished and so on.
Kitchenmaids lit fires and helped the cook with the washing and scrubbing; the nursemaid was charged with the supervision of the children in a family; the lady's maid had superior status in the hierarchy of household servants, as she personally attended to the needs and desires of the lady of the house. A house steward or valet could fulfill the same requirements for a man.
In great homes with a small army of servants, a housekeeper supervised the female (indoor) staff and a butler supervised the male staff -- which could include footmen, pages and watchmen. Coachmen, gardeners, grooms (stablehands) and gamekeepers rounded out the outdoor staff.
Servants generally stayed in the background, both literally and figuratively. They were expected to do their job quietly and without complaint.
From Wives and Daughters, Part One, Chapter VI
...They swung in at the gates of the park in a few minutes, and drove up through meadow-grass, ripening for hay, - it was no grand aristocratic deer-park this - to the old red-brick hall; not three hundred yards from the high-road. There had been no footman sent with the carriage, but a respectable servant stood at the door, even before they drew up, ready to receive the expected visitor, and take her into the drawing-room where his mistress lay awaiting her.
Part Two, Chapter XV
...Then she stole down and went into the dining-room, where the fire was gone out; purposely neglected by the servants, to mark their displeasure at their new mistress's having had her tea in her own room. Molly managed to light it, however, before her father came home, and collected and rearranged some comfortable food for him.
Part Two, Chapter XV
[Mrs. Gibson]: '...My dear girl, I should never have thought of sending an old servant away, - one who has had the charge of you from your birth, or nearly so. I could not have had the heart to do it. She might have stayed for ever for me, if she had only attended to all my wishes; and I am not unreasonable, am I? But, you see, she complained; and when your dear papa spoke to her, she gave warning; and it is quite against my principles ever to take an apology from a servant who has given warning.'
'She is so sorry,' pleaded Molly; 'she says she will do anything you wish, and attend to all your orders, if she may only stay.'
'But, sweet one, you seem to forget that I cannot go against my principles, however much I may be sorry for Betty. She should not have given way to ill-temper. As I said before, although I never liked her, and considered her a most inefficient servant, thoroughly spoilt by having had no mistress for so long, I should have borne with her - at least, I think I should - as long as I could. Now I have all but engaged Maria, who was under-housemaid at the Towers, so don't let me hear any more of Betty's sorrow, or anybody else's sorrow, for I'm sure, what with your dear papa's sad stories and other things, I'm getting quite low.'