Origin of the Name
There have been three suggestions as to the origin of this name, two of which are almost certainly wrong!
The first suggestion is that the name is an abbreviation for the Latin form of the place name Exeter in Devon. The Latin form was Exonia, which would usually appear in names as Exoniensis, meaning 'of Exeter'. So John of Exeter would appear in a Latin document as Johannes Exoniensis, which might hypothetically be abbreviated to Exon. The Anglican Bishop of Exeter still officially signs documents with his first name followed by Exon, for example Robert Exon.
This is not a valid derivation. The form Johannes Exon would only have been used in written documents in Latin. John would have called himself John of Excestre (the medieval form of the place name) or John Excestre. He would never have referred to himself as Exoniensis or Exon. (Just as an aside, many web genealogies contain the information that people were born in or lived in "Exon". Unless people are transcribing an actual document, they should say that the person was born in or lived in Exeter. Not only would this be more accurate, it would cut down the number of hits when I am searching for the name Exon!)
The second suggestion is the one my husband's own family always believed and it still crops up a lot. There was a rank in the Yeomen of the Guard (the King's personal guards) called the exon of the guard. There are a lot of objections to this derivation. There is no evidence of the use of the word in the middle ages when surnames developed and it is unlikely that such a rank would have led to the establishment of the name in the wilds of Somerset and Leicestershire well away from London.
The most obvious explanation of the name is that which also applies to a large number of other unusual names. It is most likely to be derived from a place name. There are no places called Exon but there are several called Exton. In fact the name seems to have derived separately from at least two of these. There is a concentration of occurrences in Somerset which derived from Exton, Somerset and a concentration in the English Midlands which probably derived from Exton in the old English county of Rutland (in more recent years part of Leicestershire). Other Exton place names may also have led to families with the name Exton/Exon but this is not so certain.
The only dictionary of surnames which includes the name is the Penguin Dictionary of Surnames, edited by Basil Cottle. This publication supports the Exton derivation. Rare surnames derived from place names are often missing from surname dictionaries, because there are large numbers of such names. It probably only appears in the Penguin dictionary because Basil Cottle taught my husband Andy Exon, at Bristol University.
Two surnames or one?
In England, the surname Exton is about four times as common as the surname Exon. If the name Exon derived from the place-name Exton, should we say that Exon is not really a separate surname, but is merely a variant of Exton?
It is probable that the two names should be seen as historically distinct. In the Midlands, the name Exton is still fairly common and Exon seems there to have been a early variant which persisted in some families and turns up at some times in others . In Somerset the opposite is true. Most Somerset families use the name Exon right back to the 16C and there are remarkably few variations of the name. For example, in 70 entries for the name in the parish registers of North Curry between 1593 and 1730, all but nine are spelled Exon. Eight are spelled Exton, but only in two periods 1644-1645 and 1706-1717. There is one Axon, definitely a family member.
Maybe the Somerset dialect favoured the form Exon. There seem to have been some clergymen and census enumerators in Somerset and elsewhere who believed that Exton was the 'correct' spelling and that Exon just represented sloppy pronunciation. However, these casual variations never persisted. The Exon version always returned, presumably because that was the way the families themselves pronounced it. The families themselves were sure that their surname had no 'T' in the middle of it, and, as more people became literate, the form Exon was finally established.
The evidence is that we are talking about two separate surnames here, EXON
(derived from Exton, Som -variant Exton) and EXTON (derived from Exton Rutland
- variant Exon). This may seem to be splitting hairs but the geographical
distinction is quite clear. The apparent near disappearance of the
form Exon in the Midlands may be due to pressure from the overwhelmingly more
common form Exton.
Other origins of the names
Based on the enquiries I receive, most people alive in the world today
who have the surname Exon have inherited that name from a place called Exton
in England. However, there are complications to this simple picture.
There is evidence that a Dutch family called Exceen or Exeen settled
in New Amsterdam (New York) and it is possible that, after a time, some descendants
of this family began to call themselves Exon. The FamilySearch database of the LDS
Church has entries for a man described as William Exeene or Exon but these
seem to come from a poorly sourced family tree. However, there is also
an entry for the baptism of a Samuel Exon, the son of Willem Exon at the
Dutch Reformed Church in New York at the same time as there were Exceen families
there. This aspect of the name needs more research.
In Somerset, apart from Exton, there are remarkably few instances of variation. There are no occurrences yet discovered there of the name with an added 'H' at the beginning, a variant which is theoretically possible.
Outside Somerset, the position is less clear. There are a large number of names which are superficially similar, but which are clearly distinct in geographical distribution and origin. These include Axon, Axton, Axe, Hext and Hexham (and its variants Exham, Exum and Exam). All of these appear to be surnames which are quite separate in origin from Exon. It is possible that some of the isolated occurrences of the names Exon and Exton may be variants from these names. The variant Hexon occurs in Nottinghamshire. The most commonly found true variant is Exson, although even this is rare.
Distribution of the name
I did a good deal of work on the distribution of the name in the early 1990s when one of my major sources was the International Genealogical Index (IGI). I have kept my analysis of these results even though, theoretically, much more information is now available from the LDS' FamilySearch web site. It is actually less easy now than it was to get a complete overview of a name from the LDS records and the results of my survey are unlikely to have changed. The major difference is that more Somerset records are available, but these only reinforce my view that, in most cases, the name can be traced to Somerset.
Evidence from the IGI
The IGI showed a number of entries for Exon over a large swathe of the Midlands, concentrated on Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. These entries, particularly those for Lincolnshire, are most numerous for the 16th and 17th centuries. Thereafter, there are far fewer. It is also clear that there were many more individuals who spelled their name Exton in this same area. The indications from the IGI is that Exon was a rarer variant of the fairly common name Exton in this area. The latter name seems to have derived from the place name Exton, which is in the ancient county of Rutland, later incorporated into Leicestershire.
Separate from these entries were a smaller group of Exon entries from Somerset. The fact that there were fewer entries in this group is misleading. The Bishopric of Bath and Wells (which has boundaries almost the same as the county of Somerset) had not until recently been supportive of the work of the Latter-Day Saints in copying and indexing parish registers, so only about 3% of Somerset parish register entries appeared in the IGI at the time I did my survey. When the actual registers are looked at, it is clear that there were a number of Exon families in the county from the 16th century to the 19th century. In Somerset, the variant Exton is very uncommon and Exon clearly predominates. The Somerset name derives from Exton near the Western edge of the county.
The IGI evidence shows Exons elsewhere in the country and several families in London. These may be connected with the two main areas where the name occurs or may derive from other places called Exton. Alternatively, they could be variants of different, historically distinct, names. More evidence is needed to determine this.
Since the 1881 census has been fully indexed, it is possible to have an overview of the distribution of the name in that year. It is also possible, through the statement of an individual's birthplace, to discount occurrences which are due to very recent moves.
In Somerset and Bristol together, there were 85 individuals recorded as Exon and 30 recorded as Exton. Of this group of 30 Extons, all but 6 were either born outside Somerset or are members of a single family who appear in all other records as Exons. Exon is clearly the predominant form in the West Country. By contrast, the figures for Lincolnshire and Leicestershire together are 254 Extons and only 15 Exons. The 1881 census supports the evidence of the IGI that the Exon form of the name was in decline in the Midlands by the nineteenth century.
The most striking fact when the censuses for Somerset are compared is the movement of families to Bristol and elsewhere. In the 1851 census there are a number of families in North Somerset with large numbers of children. By 1881, there are only a few older people hanging on. The largest village where Exons lived, Stogursey, lost a third of its population between 1851 and 1911, and it was the young who left. A survey of telephone books undertaken in 1974 showed no Exons in Somerset at all, although recently a family appeared in Weston-Super-Mare.
By the beginning of civil registration, the numbers of families called Exon seem to have dwindled and the heartland of the name is North Somerset. Of the 87 Exon births registered in the first twenty years of civil registration (1837-1856), 61 were born in an arc stretching from Bristol round to the coast between Bridgwater and Minehead, or were the children of people known to have been born in that area. Only 15 births in that period were registered in the Midlands. Eleven registrations are scattered round the other parts of the country, and some of these may also originate in Somerset.
By all the standards of judging the rarity of names, Exon is a very uncommon name. An average of under five births per year over the first twenty years of civil registration in the UK is a small number if the size of families at that time is taken into account, even taking into account under-registration. In the 1881 census of England and Wales, there are about 160 occurrences. It is not rare in its geographical spread in the sense that there are a considerable number of families in Britain, the US, Canada and Australia. For example, 54 entries currently appear for the name in the US Social Security Death Index. However, compared with the size of the population concerned, it is rare.
Owing to the fact that the name declined in the Midlands, the chances are that an Exon alive today descends from a Somerset family. Since I began to publicise my one-name study, I have been contacted separately by several people with Exon interests. Of these, all but one have proved to be connected with Somerset, with a number of them having a proved relationship with my husband's own family. For example it can be shown that the only Exon to have reached Congress (J. James Exon, retired Senator for Nebraska, known for his attempts to censor the Internet) is related.
The holders of the name generally do not seem to have produced large numbers of male offspring who lived to continue the name. The International Genealogical Index contains references to Exons in many areas of England in the 16th to 18th centuries but later they are much more geographically restricted.
Last updated September 26 2005