Purpose Genetic variants identified through population-based genome-wide studies are generally of high frequency, exerting their action in the central part of the refractive error spectrum. However, the power to identify associations with variants of lower minor allele frequency is greatly reduced, requiring considerable sample sizes. Here we aim to assess the impact of rare variants on genetic variation of refractive errors in a very large general population cohort. Methods Genetic association analyses of non-cyclopaedic autorefraction calculated as mean spherical equivalent (SPHE) used whole-exome sequence genotypic information from 50,893 unrelated participants in the UK Biobank of European ancestry. Gene-based analyses tested for association with SPHE using an optimised SNP-set kernel association test (SKAT-O) restricted to rare variants (minor allele frequency < 1%) within protein-coding regions of the genome. All models were adjusted for age, sex and common lead variants within the same locus reported by previous genome-wide association studies. Potentially causal markers driving association at significant loci were elucidated using sensitivity analyses by sequentially dropping the most associated variants from gene-based analyses. Results We found strong statistical evidence for association of SPHE with the SIX6 (p-value = 2.15 x 10-10, or Bonferroni-Corrected p = 4.41x10-06) and the CRX gene (p-value = 6.65 x 10-08, or Bonferroni-Corrected p = 0.001). The SIX6 gene codes for a transcription factor believed to be critical to the eye, retina and optic disc development and morphology, while CRX regulates photoreceptor specification and expression of over 700 genes in the retina. These novel associations suggest an important role of genes involved in eye morphogenesis in refractive error. Conclusion The results of our study support previous research highlighting the importance of rare variants to the genetic risk of refractive error. We explain some of the origins of the genetic signals seen in GWAS but also report for the first time a completely novel association with the CRX gene.