‘Auction by candle’ or ‘sale by inch of candle’ was one of the normal ways in which auctions were organized until about the turn of the 18th century. There are two main variations. In one a short candle (usually about an inch) is lit and bidding continues until it goes out, and the last bid made before it goes out is the one that stands. Alternatively, a pin or nail is stuck into a lighted candle, and the bidding stops when it falls out. Samuel Pepys provides excellent historical perspective: ‘6 November 1660—To our office, where we met all for the sale of two ships by an inch of candle (the first time that ever I saw any of this kind)’, and there are further references on 28 February 1661, 9 April 1661, and 3 September 1662.
Although the practice was new to Pepys, it had been in operation since at least the 15th century, and was sufficiently reputable to be the stipulated method in, for example, the Act for Settling the Trade to the West Indies (1698). Candle auctions have survived in a number of places, always concerned with land tenure and annual leasing arrangements. At Hubberholme, North Yorkshire, a sixteen-acre field called the Poors Pasture, left over from the local enclosure, is auctioned on the first Monday night in January. The vicar and churchwardens are in charge, and the bidders cannot actually see the candle's progress. Church Acre meadow in Aldermaston, Berkshire, is let every three years by candle (and pin) in December. Stowell Mead, seven and a half acres at Tatworth in Somerset, is let annually on the Tuesday following 6 April. Church Acre, Chedzoy, Somerset, is let every 21 years (and this claims to be the oldest candle auction in the country). In Leigh, Dorset, the ‘aftergrass’ (i.e. autumn and winter grazing) of two meadows is let in the same way.
Brian Learmount, A History of the Auction (1985);Kightly, 1986: 65–6;Hole, 1975: 127–8;Sykes, 1977: 50–1, 163.