She was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Thomas Guppy, Christopher Claxton and William Patterson for the Great Western Steamship Company and built in a specially adapted dry dock at Bristol. Originally intended as an Atlantic steamer, she made most of her working voyages from Britain to Australia. She was also used as a troop ship during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. In 1882 she was turned into a sailing ship to transport bulk coal, but after a fire on board in 1886 she was found to be damaged beyond repair. She was sold to the Falkland Islands Company and used as a storage hulk until the 1930s, when she was scuttled and abandoned. In 1970 she was refloated on a pontoon and towed back to Bristol, where she was returned to the (then-disused) dry dock in which she was built, for conservation as a museum ship.
As of 2003, reconstruction is underway and there are guided tours for visitors wearing hard hats.