Errol Chenery with wife Lila in 1962
William Errol Chenery (1899-1968) was a Canadian mechanic who remarkably chose to serve in both world wars. His family kindly allowed me to share his story for Remembrance Day.
Errol (pronounced “Earl”) was the father of my sister-in-law, Diane Plett. He was born on Nov. 2, 1899 in Montreal, Quebec, to engineer William Henry Chenery (abt. 1873-1933) and Catherine Mary Thompson (abt. 1875-1956). The family immigrated from England in the year before Errol was born. We know of three sisters, Dorothy (abt. 1897-), Grace (abt. 1903-) and Muriel (abt. 1907-).
Errol had brown eyes, brown hair, and a trim physique. He survived typhoid fever in August 1914, at age 13. His time in the Highland Cadets probably spurred his interest in the camaraderie and excitement of military service.
World War I Service
Errol was one of many underage youths who couldn’t wait to join the war effort. At 17 years old, but claiming to be 18, Errol volunteered on Jan. 8, 1917. His first medical examiner wasn’t duped though, saying that the 5’5” youth seemed under 18, but “might be fit as a bugler or drummer.” A later medical exam showed no concerns.
On May 3, 1917, Errol sailed for eleven days from Halifax to Liverpool on the S. S. Justicia. The same ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the British Isles in 1918 while sailing unladen.
The pay was about $34 monthly, with $20 sent directly to his mother. Errol was first assigned to the Montreal-based 245th Battalion, Canadian Grenadier Guards. Once in England, he was transferred to the 23rd Canadian Reserve Battalion at Shoreham.
When local officers noticed his youthful appearance, they sent him to the Young Soldiers Battalion at nearby Bexhill. At this training centre, over 600 underage soldiers were raised and groomed as replacements for battles in France.
In June 1918, now age 18, Errol began active duty in France when he was transferred to a mounted infantry unit, the 5th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. France was the site of many pivotal battles where units of this battalion received battle honours that year: Armiens, Scarpe, the Hindenburg Line, Canal du Nord, Cambral 1918, Valenciennes, Sambre, and Flanders.
Errol’s service was interrupted when he was kicked by a horse on Oct. 14, 1918. Five days later, he was admitted to hospital for twelve days in London for the injury to his right knee. He was back in service with his unit in France on Dec. 7, 1918.
On Mar. 8, 1919, Errol sailed from Liverpool to Canada with a large group of veterans on the S. S. Carmania. He was officially demobilized on the 25th, and soon found his groove repairing cars as a mechanic.
World War II Service
After Canada entered World War II in 1939, Errol again volunteered. Now 41 years old and an inch taller than when last serving, he enlisted at Camp Borden, Ontario, on Feb. 10, 1941. He served as a Corporal in the United Kingdom with the Royal Canadian Engineers, who conducted specialized military operations that allowed other branches of the military to perform more effectively. Further details are pending from Library and Archives Canada.
When demobilized on Dec. 5, 1945, the 46-year-old had earned some grey hair mixed with his brown strands. He was awarded three medals for his service:
Errol’s great love was Lila Viola Hallett (1910-1974). She was the youngest of 11 children of Ontario farmers, William Hallett (1867-1915) and Esther Boadway (1868-1942).
Both came from previous relationships. In 1927, Lila first married a carpenter, Reginald Ernest Black (1907-1973), with whom she had four children: Reginald Lloyd (1928-), Evelyn (married H. Barber), Allen, and Gerald “Jerry” Black (1941-).
Errol’s first wife, Margaret, worked as a nurse’s aid (Margaret Christina Chenery, 1898-1976, buried at Vancouver’s Mountainview Cemetery). They adopted a son together, William Roy Chenery (d. 2015).
By 1951, Errol and Lila moved together with Lila’s youngest son, Jerry, from Ontario to Vancouver, B.C. Two daughters, Diane and Gail, were soon added to the family. Lila described walking to Vancouver General Hospital for Diane’s birth. They lived nearby in rented space at 692 West 6th Ave.
By 1952, Errol and Lila owned their own home at 1795 Island Avenue in Vancouver’s Fraserview neighbourhood, south of S.E. Marine Drive near the Fraser River’s North Arm. There were many veterans with whom to swap stories, and the children enjoyed playing in the large yard, and visiting a friendly cow in a field across the street.
The family first lived in an outbuilding they called the “little house,” after making it habitable; the main house was rented for extra income. A curtain formed the door to the bathroom, but the exterior door to the kitchen had a cheery curtained window (see photo).
They soon moved into the main house. A wood stove provided the heat; on frigid days, Diane would open the stove’s door to warm her hands inside it. Later a modern oil furnace was installed, and new stucco brightened the exterior. When Jerry married Vonda in 1962, the couple first moved into the “little house.”
But Errol’s working career ended after he suffered a stroke in about 1963. With finances tight, the couple sold their home and moved to a house at 60th Avenue and Ross St. for a year. They were then accepted into a low-cost rental housing complex at the foot of Queen Elizabeth Park at 5010 James Walk. Lila cared for Errol at home until a further stroke required a hospital stay. He died on June 13, 1968 at age 68.
Errol’s first wife Margaret quietly attended the funeral. She had moved from Ontario to Vancouver at about the same time as Errol did, and their adopted son lived with her for a period.
In August, 1974, Lila had a heart attack when visiting Diane’s family in Langley, B.C. She died in hospital there about two weeks later on Aug. 24, 1974 at age 63. She was buried at Victory Memorial Park in Surrey, B.C., not far from Errol’s grave.
Through Diane and Gail, Errol has grandchildren and great-grandchildren that he would be very proud to know. (Diane’s granddaughter Brianna Plett just won the visual arts category of the University of the Fraser Valley’s Flood Stories Expressive Arts Contest for her gorgeous sculpture, “Our Lost Paper Memories.”) Lila’s children from her first marriage all ended up in British Columbia; Jerry is now with family in Alberta. Errol’s adopted son stayed single and rests at Surrey Centre Cemetery.
On November 13, 2022, I joined Diane and my brother Rudy at Victory Memorial Park. My Remembrance Day poppy found a new home on Errol’s grave. I tidied up the freshly fallen pine cones from around Lila’s grave and walked by the nearby pond, listening to musical birdsong. It was a suburban oasis.
- Irene Plett
A youthful Diane at 1795 Island Avenue, Vancouver
Diane, Jerry, Gail, Errol and Lila, about 1962
at the "little house" at 1795 Island Avenue
Errol's grave, Victory Memorial Park, Surrey, Nov. 13, 2022