A couple of weeks ago, staff at Whangārei Museum needed help identifying a portrait of a young man which was held in their collection.

The public was asked for assistance in the hope someone might recognise the pencil shaded photograph dated c 1910, of the neatly attired male subject. To the absolute delight of the museum, the public rallied and responses were gratefully received.

The ultimate answer to this mystery came from Sandra McKay, collection manager at Waipū Museum, who divulged not only the name of the anonymous gentleman, but also provided a family photograph taken around the same time.

The unknown mystery man was identified as Cuthbert Neilson McLean, eldest son of Murdoch and Kate McLean (nee Carey) of Waipū. Nicknamed "Cuppy", he was born in Auckland on May 17, 1895 having only one other sibling, a brother, Every Keith McLean, two years his junior.

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Cuthbert Neilson McLean 'Cuppy' (back) with his mother Kate McLean (nee Carey) and brother Every 'Keith' McLean. Photo/Supplied
Cuthbert Neilson McLean 'Cuppy' (back) with his mother Kate McLean (nee Carey) and brother Every 'Keith' McLean. Photo/Supplied

Cuthbert initially chose a Government career, being officially employed by NZ Railways in Onehunga where he held the position of Railways Clerk just prior to his enlistment in the Army.

After completing and passing a medical examination in Auckland on January 25, 1917 it was declared that Cuthbert Neilson McLean was fit for service in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in and beyond New Zealand.

Although the framed portrait of Cuthbert McLean displayed in the Museum's "Art from the Archives" exhibition is black and white, military archives bring imaginary colour to the visual rendering by highlighting McLean's physical characteristics of a dark complexion, blue eyes and brown hair.

It wasn't long before McLean, as a young man of 23, was bound for Featherston Military Camp, New Zealand's largest training camp during the World War I where around 60,000 men trained for military service between 1916 and 1918.

Unfortunately, McLean was hospitalised with influenza on October 16, 1918 after serving only seven months in the military camp. Two days later he was diagnosed with measles and was transferred to the isolation unit of Featherston Hospital where he was treated and discharged on leave without pay about a month later.

Initially joining the NZEF as a Private in the 39th Reinforcements Specialists Unit, McLean was quickly promoted and by the time of his discharge held the position of Corporal in the Specialists Company of the 47th Reinforcements.

"Cuppy" never saw active service overseas and during 1919 he married Evelyn Tabitha Ridgley.

Cuthbert appears to have remained in Northland, assisting his Scottish-born father at the Junction Store, Waipū where his father worked tirelessly building up the family business for over 50 years.

Cuthbert Neilson McLean died without issue, on September 17, 1966 aged 71, predeceasing his wife Evelyn and was buried at the local Waipū Cemetery.

It is rather amazing that the mystery man in the museum's portrait has now been identified and no doubt more questions have been raised about his life and his role in a small Northland settlement, but at least for now, Cuthbert McLean no longer remains anonymous.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.