Once labelled the `Bigamy Queen', Rosie Millard meets the woman with a weakness for wedding cake - `They never asked me if I was married, so I never t old them. I was a right rebel, me'
"Melbourne was my first. Number two was Michael. He was a serving soldier, as were the next two, Tom and Ronald. So was number five, come to think of it," says Pat Hinton, a 45-year-old Staffordshire housewife. "Erm, who was number five? Oh yes, Malcolm."

"Then I married Derek ...Andy ... Kenneth," she continues. "Oh, and Raymond. Which I thought would be fine. But he went straight off to the Falklands and had an affair, so that ended after about two weeks. Finally I married Malcolm. I know he's Mr Right." She smiles up at husband number 10, a 39-year-old rather dour-looking telecommunications engineer from Birmingham. He looks down at her fondly. "She was just addicted to wedding cake," he says, shrugging his shoulders and wandering out of the living room.

A more likely diagnosis is that Pat Hinton is addicted to marriage. Having tripped down the registry office aisle on average once every two years in the last 20, she now knows the lines so well that she can correct the registrar should a textual slip-up occur.

"Yeah, I'm pretty familiar with the ceremony. I notice when they make mistakes, or say it differently. But I got married in a different office each time."

The reason for this geographical promiscuity? Pat always managed to get to the church on time, she just wasn't so assiduous with her divorce papers. At one point she was simultaneously betrothed to three men. Dubbed the "Bigamy Queen" by the Sun, Pat hasserved three prison sentences, totalling five and a half years, for a seemingly unstoppable habit of wanting to wear a long white dress and a veil, but not quite remembering to tell the current husband about it.

The tabloid sobriquet fits her well: large, with a loud laugh and gaudily peroxided hair, Pat Hinton holds court in her home with a decidedly monarchial manner. "I was told by the judge on my last court appearance that if I appeared again he would lock me up and throw away the key," she says, giggling up at Malcolm. She bounces Ben, the one-year-old child of her foster daughter Joanne, on her knee. "The judge said I was a menace to the male popularity!" she continues, shoving a bottle into Ben's mouth. Perhaps popularity is the word for it. Men seem to have been unable to keep away from her.

For her part, Pat maintains that her grandparents' steady, loving partnership perpetuated her heavily rose-tinted ideal of matrimony, one sustained through 10 marriages. However, it was the extraordinary confusion over the identity of her true mother that she believes is the cause of all her woes. She grew up at her grandparents' house in Tenby, South Wales, with her two sisters, and had always believed her grandmother to be her mother. "I was 16 when I found out my older sister Sylvia was actually my mum - I couldn't believe it at first. We had this huge row and I shouted at her, `I hope you drop dead'. A week later, she was killed in a hit-and-run accident. I never had the opportunity to say I was sorry."

A year later she married a tyre-fitter, with whom she had her only child, Philip. "I wore a black and white dress and we got married at Tenby registry office. I thought it was going to be for life. But he wouldn't get up for work and support us; and he started drinking all the time. So I went back home to my grandmother. I wasn't really sad; it just wasn't right."

Just like any other teenage liaison, you might say. But two years later her grandmother died, leaving Pat, as she saw it, totally alone, friendless and unloved, with a small baby; and thus began a manic search throughout England for secur-ity and companionship with any available bachelor who might want a wife. "I just went around marrying people," says Pat, as if she was talking about trips to the supermarket. She puts Ben down on the floor where he plays with some toy bricks.

"Each time I married a new man, I changed my name, and everything. I never forgot what I was called, and I never forgot my new husband's name, or called them the wrong name in bed; I think I just had a good memory."

She needed one. After Melbourne there were the four soldiers, all of whom she met in the Brewers Arms pub near her former home in Colchester. "Mike was in the Light Infantry in Darlington. I wore a white dress. He started drinking, so I left him and married Tom, a Fusilier. Then he went off to Northern Ireland and came back all jumpy and childish, so I left him and married Ronald, a Royal Engineer. I was married to those three all at once. I just tore up my wedding photos from the previous marriages andforgot about them. Each time I left my previous husband, I simply walked out, taking nothing. I left all the wedding presents behind.

"They never asked me if I was married, so I never told them. I was a right rebel, me. I just didn't care, and I've never thought marriage was for life. You just don't know what lies around the corner, do you?"

While her string of husbands were none the wiser, she first came to the attention of the police when she was charged for petty fraud. By this stage she was on to husband number four. She confessed all.

Of the 80 or so bigamists arrested each year, the vast majority are men; together they share a complete disregard for any sense of undying love bound up in the marriage vows.

As far as Pat was concerned, all it took, each time, was one bout of drinking, or one affair, and she was out, and it was off. Maybe all womanising, boozing men should be treated like this; but the heart bleeds for Tom, husband number three, dumped for the crime of having nightmares on return from Ulster.

Malcolm wanders in again. "Shall I clear away the cups, then?" he asks, meekly. "Yeah, and put a T-shirt on under your shirt. You look cold," says Pat.

Has Malcolm changed her life? "If I hadn't met Malcolm, I'd still be doing the same thing now," asserts Pat. Malcolm looks rather embarrassed and starts shifting his feet about. "I was grasping at straws before, and choosing the wrong men," says Pat. "I'm a slow learner." She snorts with laughter.

Perhaps this startlingly jokey approach is due to the hilarity with which she was received each time she appeared for a stint at Styal Women's Prison in Manchester. "It began to be like going home. As far as prisons go, it was good," she says. "We all had little cottages, like separate houses. And each time I'd turn up they'd all just say `Hiya. You again!'. They laughed when they heard what I'd done."

Each time she left Styal, Pat would simply go back to Colchester, back to the Brewers Arms and pick up another soldier, who would ask her to marry him after a couple of months. "You had to marry them," she says. "You couldn't just live with them in soldiers' quarters. And I had no proper home. My son, Philip, was taken into care and I had no family. It was instant security." She sighs. "After the fifth marriage I admit I was beginning to wonder if it wasn't for me, but I didn't want to give up hope. I was still waiting for the right man."

For wedding number five she wore a cream dress; then there was a long white dress with a Juliet cap and veil, followed by a coffee-and-cream suit with a hat, another big white dress and another veil. "I think I was smitten with the idea of being married.When you're young, you're brought up to think it's the done thing for women to do. It's an old-fashioned moral," continues Pat, "but I'd always been brought up to believe you didn't live with blokes. You married them. That's the top and bottom of it really.

"If I had to give a marriage tip now, I'd say you've got to live with them first. That's the only way of finding out how they really are. So many of my husbands were a real laugh but once they had that piece of paper they behaved as if they owned me."

"She loves a marriage," interjects Malcolm. "Whenever we see one outside a church, she always stops to have a look. She likes to see the different outfits and make comparisons with what she had."

Pat carefully pulls a bunch of silk flowers from a polythene wrapper and holds them gently. "My wedding bouquet," she says softly. For Pat, the marriage day is still clearly an institution that can never pall no matter how impermanent, or how many times it is gone through.

Malcolm and Pat met in December 1988; and lived together for three years before marrying at Birmingham Registry Office before a barrage of press photographers and legal officers. Pat wore a white dress "trimmed with pink because I didn't think I could get away with pure white. The service was delayed for two hours while they checked through all my divorce papers," she says, "to check that I was properly single. This time I knew it was going to work; he was the only one who really wanted to know me, about my life, and about my childhood."

Press speculation gave the relationship six months; six years later, the Hintons live in a small semi in the Staffordshire village of King's Bromley along with Pat's second foster daughter, Helen, baby Ben, two dogs and a shedful of lop-eared rabbits. Itappears to be the halcyon domestic existence Pat has been searching for, for the last two decades. Even the rabbits are domestically sorted. "They're all in pairs, Bonnie and Clyde, Olive Oyl and Popeye. We have Thumper, but we're looking for a female for him."

Pat and Malcolm feature in `Love, Lies and Bigamy', showing on ITV, 17 January, 10.40pm.