This article investigates the changing administrative context of drainage in south-west Lancashire from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. Successive schemes managed by Commissions of Sewers, piecemeal reclamation and private agreement were characterised by primitive technology, under-investment and poor management. Consequently, their achievements were limited. Large scale drainage schemes under the control of single individuals or powerful syndicates enjoyed greater success, but to coordinate drainage across an ecosystem that went beyond estate boundaries required state intervention in the form of an Act of Parliament of 1779. After some initial success the drainage commissioners found themselves immersed in legal wranglings with landowners and maintenance of the drainage system largely fell into abeyance. It was not until the landlords provided the administrative and financial resources to invest in technological solutions in the 1840s that the land achieved its full potential. It is argued that drainage of this land, resulting in its transformation from some of the worst land in the country to some of the best, was a major contributor not only to the agricultural success of the region, but also to Lancashire's industrial success.