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How do you deal with black holes in the historical data?

First off: I'm not at this point looking for specific help with my missing data. Rather I'm looking for help in understanding what the missing data may mean and suggestions for possible ways to fill in the holes.

Here's the situation: In the 1901 England census I find a clear entry for my great-grandfather, great-grandmother, (both age 48 ) and their 6 children (age 10 to 21) including my grandmother, all with places of birth consistent with the family history . Nowhere can I find any earlier record for any of these 8 people. No entries in any earlier census, no birth records for any of the 8, no marriage record for the parents --- nothing. I have tried every combination of spelling and date variations imaginable to no avail. I have looked at UK ship arrivals, though given that all children from age 13 and up were working in the cotton mills in 1901, I doubt the family would have been international travellers.

So my question to those of you with more experience than I have is: what do you think this means? Do whole families miss the census for decades while failing to register births? Was my great-grandfather fleeing from justice (or the lack thereof) and the family living under new names? What other possibilities exist? Have you ever encountered such a black hole and found a way to discover the missing data?

Any thoughts greatly appreciated!

- Valerie

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