When the Tsar of Russia Beheld the Wearmouth Bridge

Britain’s relationship with Russia has been either that of a foe or an ally of convenience, depending on the conflict at hand. Whilst allies against Germany in the First and Second World Wars, as well as against Napoleon’s France, London’s ties with Moscow have otherwise been cold, distrusting and competitive, saturated in the mould of two competing empires with different versions for global dominance.

Yet it was during one of these periods where the two countries were amicable to each other, in the early 19th century in 1816 (one year after the battle of Waterloo), that the Tsar of Russia Alexander I would visit the town of Sunderland. Why exactly? He wanted to see for himself an unprecedented achievement in engineering: what was then the largest iron span bridge in the world ever built, the Wearmouth Bridge.

Tsar Alexander I

Originally constructed in 1796, the prototype Wearmouth Bridge as designed by Thomas Paine was at its height one of a kind, a revolutionary construction that posed to change the world, uniting the two settlements of Bishopwearmouth and Monkwearmouth into one. It is no wonder that the visiting Tsar wanted to see this, and as written by James Burnett in “The History of the Town and Port of Sunderland” (1830) he stood upon the bridge and read out the description upon it, now the city’s motto: “Nil Desparandum Auspice Dio”

Although the situation now regarding Ukraine is not good, this nonetheless continues to stand out as an incredible and little known moment in the city’s history that deserves more recognition. Wearmouth Bridge was something truly special when it was built, and we should not forget that.