“It was pleasant to see how backward men are a first to bid; and yet, when the candle was going out, how they brawl.”
So wrote Pepys of an auction in 1662. Auction by candle and pin was very popular in the mid 17th century, often over land for grazing and those given as bequests for charitable purposes. The basic procedure being the inserting of pin into the lit candle and then the bids continuing until the said pin fell.
Waxing and waning
Eleven candle auctions survive in England, some more famed than others. In Old Bolingbroke, Lincolnshire, a piece of land called Poor Folk’s Close a six acre site in the parish was auctioned for providing a money for the poor on the 21st December, St Thomas Day, noted for Thomasing, so no doubt it was established to prevent begging! Henry Brown in the book, Sold Reminiscences of a Lincolnshire Auctioneer noted:
“One can imagine the frantic flurry of bids as he final point approached and the pin perhaps began to sway a little. I imagine there must have been many arguments as to who exactly had the last bid as the pin fell. As always the auctioneer’s decision was final.”
This original auction appears to have died out in 1920s. The present form dates from the 1937, in celebration of the silver jubilee of George V, when a will of the Ramsden, gave land to pay for the upkeep of the village hall was knowingly established to revive and maintain the custom.
The will stipulating:
“Let the grazing of the field annually by the ancient custom and method peculiar to Old Bolingbroke, known as the Candlestick auction. The pin shall be inserted in the side of a lighted candle not more than one inch from the top and the person who is the highest bidder when the pin drops out shall be the purchaser of the grazing for the year.”
The holder had grazing rights for sheep only, although two horses could be grazed there as well but no poultry. The grazing commennced from the 1st April to 31st October, with half the hammer price being paid at the auction and half at the termination in October. The holder is responsible for the upkeep of the fencing and weed removal but the materials would be paid for by the council. Interestingly, a percentage of the profit would go to support any student in the parish who may need monetary help for the studies. The custom was for many years continued at the Ramsden Hall in the village, but seeing the rent contract for a number of years, moved it to Horncastle to join an equally old, or infact older, summer graving auction.
Candle in the wind
The day of the auction was very cold and a harsh wind was blowing on and off fortunately the auction was to be held in the warmer surrounds of the Black Swan, Horncastle, one of many inns in this delightful town, a few minutes before the start. I was met by the rather bucolic and friendly figure of George Bell, the auctioneer. Soon the room began to fill up with the world weary local farming community. A sea of green Barber jackets could be seen nestling in the pub surrounds awaiting the start of the auction. What was clear that this was a community coming together over the auction, Mr. Bell being very familiar with a large number of attendees.
At 1.30 sharp the auctioneer banged his gavel, and outlined the procedure. The candle was the light set up in ornate candlestick and diligently, over some discussion over what pin to use, a pin was inserted and the bidding begun…the eyes of he auctioneer flitting across the room as he repeated feverishly the bids, 20, 20, 22…the weather worn focused farmer faces breaking occasionally in the humour of the situation as it appeared the pin was not moving…after 7 minutes or so, it was decided to go to another lot. Asking of anyone else was about to bid – the room was silent at £32. Just as the bidding on this ended and another lot was to be read the pin began to rock and just when no one was looking it fell. The bidder got it for £32 an acre, a bargain as in 2011 it reached £322 and in 2008, the first year the auction moved to Horncastle it raised an enormous £980. Understandably, with the cold harsh wintry weather outside, with snow on the ground, thoughts of summer grazing was perhaps not formost for some. The auction was a window displaying how hard it has been of late for these farmers – wet summers, compounded with snow into spring – have meant it has difficult for many of these communities and not surprisingly perhaps the price of a small field in Bolingbroke was less than it had been.
– images copyright Pixyled Publications