The first Wearmouth Bridge opened in 1796, with the foundation stone having been laid in September 1793. It was sponsored and patented by Rowland Burdon, the MP, designed by Thomas Paine, and built under the direction of Thomas Wilson, who designed its architectural features. According to the plaque on the current bridge, its construction “proved to be a catalyst for the growth of Sunderland,” since access between Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth had previously only been by ferry, with the nearest bridge at Chester-le-Street. There was originally a toll for traffic and pedestrians, although tolls for pedestrians were abolished in 1846.
It was the second iron bridge built after the famous span at Ironbridge, but was over twice as long with a nominal span of 240 ft (73 m), and only three-quarters the weight. Indeed, at the time of building, it was the biggest single-span bridge in the world (72 m), matching the collapsed Trezzo Bridge. It opened to traffic on 9 August 1796, having cost a total of about £28,000.